Skip to main content

Full text of "Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History"

See other formats






Ontogeny and Phylogeny 
Ever Since Darwin 
The Panda’s Thumb 
The Mismeasure of Man 
Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes 
The Flamingo’s Smile 
An Urchin in the Storm 
Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle 
Illuminations (with R. W. Purcell) 
Wonderful Life 

Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors 
(with R. W. Purcell) 




Reflections in Natural 

Stephen Jay Gould 


Cover design by Mike Mclver 

Cover painting by C.R. Knight, Brontosaurus 

Courtesy Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural 
History. Neg. trans. no. 2417 (3) 

Copyright © 1991 by Stephen Jay Gould 
All rights reserved. 

Printed in America. 

The text of this book is composed in 10/12 Baskerville, with the display set in 
Baskerville. Composition and manufacturing by the Haddon Craftsmen, Inc. 

First published as a Norton paperback 1992 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Gould, Stephen Jay. 

Bully for brontosaurus : reflections in natural history / Stephen 
Jay Gould, 
p. cm. 

Includes index. 

1 . Natural history — Popular works. 2. Evolution — Popular works. 

I. Title. 

QH45.5.G68 1991 

508— dc20 91-6916 

ISBN 0-393-30857-X 

W.W Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 101 10 
W.W. Norton Sc Company Ltd, 10 Coptic Street, London WCIA IPU 

8 9 0 

Pleni sunt coeh 
et terra 
gloria eius. 

Hosanna in excelsis. 


Prologue 1 1 


1 George Canning’s Left Buttock and the Origin 
of Species 21 

2 Grimm’s Greatest Tale 32 

3 The Creation Myths of Cooperstown 42 

4 The Panda’s Thumb of Technology 59 


5 Bully for Brontosaurus 79 

6 The Dinosaur Rip-off 94 


7 Of Kiwi Eggs and the Liberty Bell 109 

8 Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples 124 

9 Not Necessarily a Wing 139 


10 The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier 
Clone 155 

11 Life’s Little Joke 168 

12 The Chain of Reason versus the Chain of 
Thumbs 182 




Madame Jeanette 201 


Red Wings in the Sunset 209 


Petrus Camper’s Angle 229 


Literary Bias on the Slippery Slop< 




Glow, Big Glowworm 255 


To Be a Platypus 269 


Bligh’s Bounty 281 


Here Goes Nothing 294 



21 In a Jumbled Drawer 309 

22 Kropotkin Was No Crackpot 325 

23 Fleeming Jenkin Revisited 340 

Physical Scientists 

24 The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier 354 

25 The Godfather of Disaster 367 


The World of T. H. Huxley 

26 Knight Takes Bishop? 385 

27 Genesis and Geology 402 

Scopes to Scalia 

28 William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign 416 

29 An Essay on a Pig Roast 432 

30 Justice Scalia’s Misunderstanding 448 


31 The Streak of Streaks 463 

32 The Median Isn’t the Message 473 

33 The Ant and the Plant 479 



34 The Face of Miranda 489 

35 The Horn of Triton 499 

Bibliography 513 
Index 525 


in France, they call this genre vulgarisation — but the 
implications are entirely positive. In America, we call it “popular 
(or pop) writing” and its practitioners are dubbed “science writ- 
ers” even if, like me, they are working scientists who love to share 
the power and beauty of their field with people in other profes- 

In France (and throughout Europe), vulgarisation ranks within 
the highest traditions of humanism, and also enjoys an ancient 
pedigree — from St. Francis communing with animals to Galileo 
choosing to write his two great works in Italian, as dialogues be- 
tween professor and students, and not in the formal Latin of 
churches and universities. In America, for reasons that I do not 
understand (and that are truly perverse), such writing for non- 
scientists lies immured in deprecations — “adulteration,” “sim- 
plification,” “distortion for effect,” “grandstanding,” “whiz- 
bang.” I do not deny that many American works deserve these 
designations — but poor and self-serving items, even in vast ma- 
jority, do not invalidate a genre. “Romance” fiction has not ban- 
ished love as a subject for great novelists. 

I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and 
distortion for two main reasons. First, such a designation im- 
poses a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly 
young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their hand 
at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of 
millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without 
patronization. If we writers assume a crushing mean of medioc- 
rity and incomprehension, then not only do we have contempt 



for our neighbors, but we also extinguish the light of excellence. 
The “perceptive and intelligent” layperson is no myth. They 
exist in millions — a low percentage of Americans perhaps, but a 
high absolute number with influence beyond their proportion in 
the population. I know this in the most direct possible way — by 
thousands of letters received from nonprofessionals during my 
twenty years of writing these essays, and particularly from the 
large number written by people in their eighties and nineties, and 
still striving, as intensely as ever, to grasp nature’s richness and 
add to a lifetime of understanding. 

We must all pledge ourselves to recovering accessible science 
as an honorable intellectual tradition. The rules are simple: no 
compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambigu- 
ity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing 
down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in 
ordinary English). Several of us are pursuing this style of writing 
in America today. And we enjoy success if we do it well. Thus, our 
primary task lies in public relations: We must be vigorous in iden- 
tifying what we are and are not, uncompromising in our claims to 
the humanistic lineages of St. Francis and Galileo, not to the 
sound bites and photo ops in current ideologies of persuasion — 
the ultimate in another grand old American tradition (the dark 
side of anti-intellectualism, and not without a whiff of appeal to 
the unthinking emotionalism that can be a harbinger of fascism). 

Humanistic natural history comes in two basic lineages. I call 
them Franciscan and Galilean in the light of my earlier discus- 
sion. Franciscan writing is nature poetry — an exaltation of or- 
ganic beauty by corresponding choice of words and phrase. Its 
lineage runs from St. Francis to Thoreau on Walden Pond, W. H. 
Hudson on the English downs, to Foren Eiseley in our genera- 
tion. Galilean composition delights in nature’s intellectual puz- 
zles and our quest for explanation and understanding. Galileans 
do not deny the visceral beauty, but take greater delight in the joy 
of causal comprehension and its powerful theme of unification. 
The Galilean (or rationalist) lineage has roots more ancient than 
its eponym — from Aristotle dissecting squid to Galileo reversing 
the heavens, to T. H. Huxley inverting our natural place, to P. B. 
Medawar dissecting the follies of our generation. 

I love good Franciscan writing but regard myself as a fervent, 
unrepentant, pure Galilean — and for two major reasons. First, I 


would be an embarrassing flop in the Franciscan trade. Poetic 
writing is the most dangerous of all genres because failures are so 
conspicuous, usually as the most ludicrous form of purple prose 
(seejames Joyce’s parody, cited in Chapter 17). Cobblers should 
stick to their lasts and rationalists to their measured style. Sec- 
ond, Wordsworth was right. The child is father to the man. My 
youthful “splendor in the grass” was the bustle and buildings of 
New York. My adult joys have been walks in cities, amidst stun- 
ning human diversity of behavior and architecture — from the 
Quirinal to the Piazza Navona at dusk, from the Georgian New 
Town to the medieval Old Town of Edinburgh at dawn — more 
than excursions in the woods. I am not insensible to natural 
beauty, but my emotional joys center on the improbable yet 
sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental evolution- 
ary twig called Homo sapiens. And I find, among these works, noth- 
ing more noble than the history of our struggle to understand 
nature — a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope 
that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought 
with a curious evolutionary invention, even if that invention has, 
for the first time in some four billion years of life on earth, pro- 
duced recursion as a creature reflects back upon its own produc- 
tion and evolution. Thus, I love nature primarily for the puzzles 
and intellectual delights that she offers to the first organ capable 
of such curious contemplation. 

Franciscans may seek a poetic oneness with nature, but we 
Galilean rationalists have a program of unification as well — na- 
ture made mind and mind now returns the favor by trying to 
comprehend the source of production. 

This is the fifth volume of collected essays from my monthly 
series, “This View of Life,” now approaching two hundred items 
over eighteen years in Natural History magazine (the others, in 
order, are Ever Since Darwin, The Panda 's Thumb, Hen ’s Teeth and 
Horse’s Toes, and The Flamingo’s Smile). The themes may be famil- 
iar (with a good dollop of novelty, I trust), but the items are 
mostly new (and God has never left his dwelling place in the 

Against a potential charge of redundancy, may I advance the 
immodest assertion that this volume is the best of the five. I think 
that I have become a better writer by monthly practice (I some- 
times wish that all copies of Ever Svice Darwin would self-de- 


struct), and I have given myself more latitude of selection and 
choice in this volume. (The previous four volumes discarded only 
a turkey or two and then published all available items in three 
years of essays. This volume, covering six years of writing, pre- 
sents the best, or rather the most integrated, thirty-five pieces 
from more than sixty choices.) 

These essays, while centered on the enduring themes of evolu- 
tion and the innumerable, instructive oddities of nature (frogs 
that use their stomachs as brood pouches, the gigantic eggs of 
Kiwis, an ant with a single chromosome), also record the specific 
passage of six years since the fourth volume. I have marked the 
successful completion of a sixty-year battle against creationism 
(since the Scopes trial of 1925) in our resounding Supreme Court 
victory of 1987 (see essays under “Scopes to Scalia”), the bicen- 
tennial of the French revolution (in an essay on Lavoisier, most 
prominent scientific victim of the Reign of Terror), and the mag- 
nificent completion of our greatest technical triumph in Voyager's 
fly-by and photography of Uranus and Neptune (Essays 34 and 
35). I also record, as I must, our current distresses and failures — 
the sorry state of science education (approached, as is my wont, 
not tendentiously, abstractly, and head-on, but through byways 
that sneak up on generality — fox terriers and textbook copying, 
or subversion of dinomania for intellectual benefit), and a sad 
epilogue on the extinction, between first writing and this republi- 
cation, of the stomach-brooding frog. 

Yet I confess that my personal favorites usually treat less imme- 
diate, even obscure, subjects — especially when correction of the 
errors that confined them to ridicule or obscurity retells their 
stories as relevant and instructive today. Thus, I write about 
Abbot Thayer’s theory that flamingos are red to hide them from 
predators in the sunset, Petrus Camper’s real intent (criteria for 
art) in establishing a measure later used by scientific racists, the 
admirable side of Williamjennings Bryan and the racist nonsense 
in the text that John Scopes used to teach evolution, the actual 
(and much more interesting) story behind the heroic, cardboard 
version of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate of 1860. 

For what it’s worth, my own favorite is Essay 21 on N. S. Shaler 
and William James (I won’t reveal my vote for the worst essays — 
especially since they have been shredded in my mental refuse bin 


and will not be included in these volumes) . At least Essay 2 1 best 
illustrates my favorite method of beginning with something small 
and curious and then working outward and onward by a network 
of lateral connections. I found the fearful letter of Shaler to Agas- 
siz in a drawer almost twenty years ago. I always knew that I 
would find a use for it someday — but I had no inkling of the 
proper context. A new biography of Shaler led me to explore his 
relationship with Agassiz. I then discovered the extent of Shaler’s 
uncritical (and lifelong) fealty by reading his technical papers. At 
this point, luck intervened. One of my undergraduate advisees 
told me that William James, as a Harvard undergraduate, had 
sailed with Agassiz to Brazil on the master’s penultimate voyage. 
I knew that Shaler and James had been friendly colleagues and 
intellectual adversaries — and now I had full connectivity in their 
shared link to Agassiz. But would anything interesting emerge 
from all these ties? Again, good fortune smiled. James had been 
critical of Agassiz right from the start — and in the very intellec- 
tual arena (contingency versus design in the history of life) that 
would host their later disagreements as distinguished senior pro- 
fessors. I then found a truly amazing letter from James to Shaler 
offering the most concise and insightful rebuttal I have ever read 
to the common misconception — as current today as when James 
and Shaler argued — that the improbability of our evolution indi- 
cates divine intent in our origin. James’s document — also a bril- 
liant statement on the general nature of probability — provided a 
climax of modern relevance for a story that began with an ob- 
scure note lying undiscovered in a drawer for more than a hun- 
dred years. Moreover, James’s argument allowed me to resolve 
the dilemma of the museum janitor, Mr. Eli Grant, potential vic- 
tim of Shaler’s cowardly note — so the essay ends by using James’s 
great generality to solve the little mystery of its beginning, a more 
satisfactory closure (I think) than the disembodied abstraction of 
James’s brilliance. 

Finally, and now thrice lucky, I received two years later a fasci- 
nating letter from Jimmy Carter presenting a theological alterna- 
tive to the view of contingency and improbability in human 
evolution advanced in my last book, Wonderful Life. Carter’s argu- 
ment, though more subtle and cogent than Shaler’s, follows the 
same logic — and James’s rebuttal has never been bettered or 


more apropos. And so, by presidential proclamation, I had an 
epilogue that proved the modern relevance of Shaler’s tradition- 
alism versus James’s probing. 

Some people have seen me as a polymath, but I insist that I am 
a tradesman. I admit to a broad range of explicit detail, but all are 
chosen to illustrate the common subjects of evolutionary change 
and the nature of history. And I trust that this restricted focus 
grants coherence and integration to an overtly disparate range of 
topics. The bullet that hit George Canning in the ass really is a 
vehicle for discussing the same historical contingency that rules 
evolution. My sweet little story about nostalgia at the thirtieth 
reunion of my All-City high school chorus is meant to be a gen- 
eral statement (bittersweet in its failure to resolve a cardinal di- 
chotomy) about the nature of excellence. The essay on Joe 
DiMaggio’s hitting streak is a disquisition on probability and pat- 
tern in historical sequences; another on the beginnings of base- 
ball explores creation versus evolution as primal stories for the 
origin of any object or institution. And Essay 32, the only bit I 
have ever been moved to write about my bout with cancer, is not a 
confessional in the personal mode, but a general statistical argu- 
ment about the nature of variation in populations — the central 
topic of all evolutionary biology. 

A final thought on Franciscans and Galileans in the light of our 
environmental concerns as a tattered planet approaches the mil- 
lennium (by human reckoning — as nature, dealing in billions, can 
only chuckle). Franciscans engage the glory of nature by direct 
communion. Yet nature is so massively indifferent to us and our 
suffering. Perhaps this indifference, this majesty of years in un- 
caring billions (before we made a belated appearance), marks her 
true glory. Omar Khayyam’s old quatrain grasped this fundamen- 
tal truth (though he should have described his Eastern hotel, his 
metaphor for the earth, as grand rather than battered): 

Think, in this battered caravanserai 

Whose portals are alternate night and day, 

How sultan after sultan with his pomp 

Abode his destined hour, and went his way. 

The true beauty of nature is her amplitude; she exists neither 
for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our 


nuclear arsenals cannot threaten (much as we can easily destroy 
our puny selves). 

The hubris that got us into trouble in the first place, and that 
environmentalists seek to avoid as the very definition of their (I 
should say our) movement, often creeps back in an unsuspected 
(and therefore potentially dangerous) form in two tenets fre- 
quently advanced by “green” movements: (1) that we live on a 
fragile planet subject to permanent ruin by human malfeasance; 
(2) that humans must act as stewards of this fragility in order to 
save our planet. 

We should be so powerful! (Read this sentence with my New 
York accent as a derisive statement about our false sense of 
might, not as a literal statement of desire.) For all our mental and 
technological wizardry, I doubt that we can do much to derail the 
earth’s history in any permanent sense by the proper planetary 
time scale of millions of years. Nothing within our power can 
come close to conditions and catastrophes that the earth has 
often passed through and beyond. The worst scenario of global 
warming under greenhouse models yields an earth substantially 
cooler than many happy and prosperous times of a prehuman 
past. The megatonnage of the extraterrestrial impact that proba- 
bly triggered the late Cretaceous mass extinction has been es- 
timated at 10,000 times greater than all the nuclear bombs now 
stockpiled on earth. And this extinction, wiping out some 50 per- 
cent of marine species, was paltry compared to the granddaddy of 
all — the Permian event some 225 million years ago that might 
have dispatched up to 95 percent of species. Yet the earth recov- 
ered from these superhuman shocks, and produced some inter- 
esting evolutionary novelties as a result (consider the potential 
for mammalian domination, including human emergence, fol- 
lowing the removal of dinosaurs). 

But recovery and restabilization occur at planetary, not human, 
time scales — that is, millions of years after the disturbing event. 
At this scale, we are powerless to harm; the planet will take care of 
itself, our puny foolishnesses notwithstanding. But this time 
scale, though natural for planetary history, is not appropriate in 
our legitimately parochial concern for our own species, and the 
current planetary configurations that now support us. For these 
planetary instants — our millennia — we do hold power to impose 
immense suffering (I suspect that the Permian catastrophe was 


decidedly unpleasant for the nineteen of twenty species that 
didn’t survive). 

We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the 
modal organisms on earth right from the start, and probably shall 
be until the sun explodes); I doubt that we can wreak much per- 
manent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to 
destroy local populations and species). But we can surely elimi- 
nate our fragile selves — and our well-buffered earth might then 
breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an 
interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global 
warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so 
often at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural 
patterns to the severe detriment of millions. Nuclear war is an 
ultimate calamity for the pain and death of billions, and the ge- 
netic maiming of millions in future generations. 

Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful 
latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are 
stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is 
more vital and timely than modern environmentalism — because 
we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own 
immediate folly. We hear so much talk about an environmental 
ethic. Many proposals embody the abstract majesty of a Kantian 
categorical imperative. Yet I think that we need something far 
more grubby and practical. We need a version of the most useful 
and ancient moral principle of all — the precept developed in one 
form or another by nearly every culture because it acts, in its 
legitimate appeal to self-interest, as a doctrine of stability based 
upon mutual respect. No one has ever improved upon the golden 
rule. If we execute such a compact with our planet, pledging to 
cherish the earth as we would wish to be treated ourselves, she 
may relent and allow us to muddle through. Such a limited goal 
may strike some readers as cynical or blinkered. But remember 
that, to an evolutionary biologist, persistence is the ultimate re- 
ward. And human brainpower, for reasons quite unrelated to its 
evolutionary origin, has the damnedest capacity to discover the 
most fascinating things, and think the most peculiar thoughts. So 
why not keep this interesting experiment around, at least for an- 
other planetary second or two? 

in Evolution 

George Canning’s Left 
Buttock and the Origin 
of Species 

i know the connection between Charles Darwin and 
Abraham Lincoln. They conveniently contrived to enter the 
world on the same day, February 12,1 809, thus providing forget- 
ful humanity with a mnemonic for ordering history. (Thanks also 
to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for dying on the same mo- 
mentous day, July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after our nation’s 
official birthdate.) 

But what is the connection between Charles Darwin and An- 
drew Jackson? What can an English gentleman who mastered the 
abstractions of science hold in common with Old Hickory, who 
inaugurated the legend (later exploited by Lincoln) of the back- 
woodsman with little formal education fighting his way to the 
White House? (Jackson was born on the western frontier of the 
Carolinas in 1 767, but later set up shop in the pioneer territory of 
Nashville.) This more difficult question requires a long string of 
connections more worthy of Rube Goldberg than of logical ne- 
cessity. But let’s have a try, in nine easy steps. 

1. Andy Jackson, as a result of his military exploits in and 
around the ill-fated War of 1812, became a national figure, and 
ultimately, on this basis, a presidential contender. In a conflict 
conspicuously lacking in good news, Jackson provided much sol- 
ace by winning the Battle of New Orleans, our only major victory 
on land after so many defeats and stalemates. With help from the 
privateer Jean Lafitte (who was then pardoned by President Mad- 
ison but soon resumed his old ways), Jackson decisively defeated 
the British forces on January 8, 1815, and compelled their with- 
drawal from Louisiana. Cynics often point out, perhaps ungener- 



ously, that Jackson’s victory occurred more than two weeks after 
the war had officially ended, but no one had heard the news down 
in the bayous because the treaty had been signed in Ghent and 
word then traveled no faster than ship. 

2. When we were about to withdraw from Vietnam and ac- 
knowledge (at least privately) that the United States had lost the 
war, some supporters of that venture (I was not among them) 
drew comfort from recalling that, patriotic cant aside, this was 
not our hrst military defeat. Polite traditions depict the War of 
1812 as a draw, but let’s face it, basically we lost — at least in terms 
of the larger goal espoused by hawks of that era: the annexation 
of Canada, at least in part. But we did manage to conserve both 
territory and face, an important boon to America’s future and a 
crucial ingredient in Jackson’s growing reputation. Washington, 
so humiliated just a few months before when British troops 
burned the White House and the Capitol, rejoiced in two items of 
news, received in early 1815 in reverse order of their actual oc- 
currence: Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, and the favorable 
terms of the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814. 

3. The Treaty of Ghent restored all national boundaries to 
their positions before the war; thus, we could claim that we had 
lost not an inch of territory, even though expansion into Canada 
had been the not-so-hidden aim of the war’s promoters. The 
treaty provided for commissions of arbitration to settle other 
points of dispute between the United States and Canada; all re- 
maining controversies were negotiated peacefully under these 
provisions, including the establishment of our unfortified bound- 
ary, the elimination of naval forces from the Great Lakes, and the 
settlement of the Saint Lawrence boundary. Thomas Boylston 
Adams, descendant of John Quincy Adams (who negotiated and 
signed the treaty), recently wrote of that exemplary document (in 
his wonderful column “History Looks Ahead,” appearing twice a 
month in the Boston Globe): “The treaty . . . ended a war that never 
should have been begun. Yet its consummation was unbounded 
good. The peace then confirmed . . . has never been broken. Its 
bounty has been the cheerful coexistence of two friendly nations 
divided by nothing more tangible than an invisible line that runs 
for 3,000 miles undefended by armed men or armaments.” 

4. If the war had not ended, fortunately for us, on such an 
upbeat, Andy Jackson’s belated victory at New Orleans might 



have emerged as a bitter joke rather than a symbol of (at least 
muted) success — and Jackson, deprived of status as a military 
hero, might never have become president. But why did Britain, in 
a fit of statesmanship, agree to such a conciliatory treaty, when 
they held the upper hand militarily? The reasons are complex 
and based, in part, on expediency (the coalition that had exiled 
Napoleon to Elba was coming apart, and more troops might soon 
be needed in Europe). But much credit must also go to the poli- 
cies of Britain’s remarkable foreign secretary, Robert Stewart, 
Viscount Castlereagh. In a secret dispatch sent to the British min- 
ister in Washington in 1817, Castlereagh set out his basic policy 
for negotiation, a stance that had guided the restructuring of 
Europe at the Congress of Vienna, following the final defeat of 
Napoleon: “The avowed and true policy of Great Britain in the 
existing State of the World is to secure if possible, for all states a 
long interval of repose.” 

Three years earlier, Castlereagh had put flesh on these brave 
words by helping to break the deadlock at Ghent and facilitate a 
peace treaty that did not take all that Britain could have de- 
manded, thereby leaving the United States with both pride and 
flexibility for a future and deeper peace with Britain. Negotia- 
tions had gone badly at Ghent; anger and stalemate ruled. Then, 
on his way to Vienna, Castlereagh stopped for two days in Ghent, 
where, in secret meetings with his negotiators, he advocated con- 
ciliation and helped to break the deadlock. 

5. We must thank the fortunate tides of history that Cast- 
lereagh, rather than his counterpart and rival, the hawkish and 
uncompromising George Canning, was presiding over Britain’s 
foreign affairs in 1814. (And so you see, dear reader, we are fi- 
nally getting to Mr. Canning’s rear end, as promised in the title.) 
The vagaries of a key incident in 1809 led to this favorable out- 
come. Canning, then foreign secretary, had been pushing for 
Castlereagh’s ouster as secretary of war. Castlereagh had sent a 
British expedition against Napoleon’s naval base at Antwerp, but 
nature had intervened (through no fault of Castlereagh’s), and 
the troops were boxed in on the island of Walcheren, dying in 
droves of typhoid fever. Canning used this disaster to press his 

Meanwhile (this does get complicated), the prime minister, the 
duke of Portland, suffered a paralytic stroke and eventually had to 


resign. In the various reshufflings and explanations that follow 
such an event, Perceval, the new prime minister, showed Cast- 
lereagh some of Canning’s incriminating letters. Castlereagh did 
not challenge Canning’s right to lobby for his removal, but he 
exploded in fury at Canning’s apparent secrecy in machination. 
Canning, for his part (and not without justice), replied that he 
had urged open confrontation of the issue, but that higher-ups 
(including the king) had imposed secrecy, hoping to paper over 
the affair and somehow preserve the obvious talents of both men 
in government. 

Castlereagh, to say the least, was not satisfied and, in the hap- 
pily abandoned custom of his age, insisted upon a duel. The two 
men and their seconds met on Putney Heath at 6 a.m. on Septem- 
ber 21. They fired a first round to no effect, but Castlereagh 
insisted on a second, of much greater import. Castlereagh was 
spared the fate of Alexander Hamilton by inches, as Canning’s 
bullet removed a button from his coat but missed his person. 
Canning was not so fortunate; though more embarrassed than 
seriously injured, he took Castlereagh’s second bullet in his left 
buttock. (Historians have tended to euphemism at this point. The 
latest biography of Castlereagh holds that Canning got it 
“through the fleshy part of the thigh,” but I have it on good 
authority that Canning was shot in the ass.) In any case, both men 
subsequently resigned. 

As the world turns and passions cool, both Canning and Cast- 
lereagh eventually returned to power. Canning achieved his 
burning ambition (cause of his machinations against Cast- 
lereagh) to become prime minister, if only briefly, in 1827. Cast- 
lereagh came back in Canning’s old job of foreign secretary, 
where he assured the Treaty of Ghent and presided for Britain at 
the Congress of Vienna. 

6. Suppose Canning had fired more accurately and killed Cast- 
lereagh on the spot? Canning, or another of his hawkish persua- 
sion, might have imposed stiffer terms upon the United States 
and deprived Andy Jackson of his hero’s role. More important for 
our tale, Castlereagh would have been denied the opportunity to 
die as he actually did, by his own hand, in 1822. Castlereagh had 
suff ered all his life from periods of acute and debilitating “melan- 
choly” and would, today, almost surely be diagnosed as a severe 
manic depressive. Attacked by the likes of Lord Byron, Shelley, 


and I’homas Moore for his foreign policies, and suffering from 
both overwork and parliamentary reverses, Castlereagh became 
unreasonably suspicious and downright paranoid. He thought 
that he was being blackmailed for supposed acts of homosexual- 
ity (neither the blackmail nor the sexual orientation has ever been 
proved). His two closest friends. King George IV and the duke of 
Wellington, failed to grasp the seriousness of his illness and did 
not secure adequate protection or treatment. On August 12, 
1822, though his wife (fearing the worst) had removed all knives 
and razors from his vicinity, Castlereagh rushed into his dressing 
room, seized a small knife that had been overlooked, and slit his 

7. Yes, we are getting to Darwin, but it takes a while. Point 
seven is a simple statement of genealogy: Lord Castlereagh’s sis- 
ter was the mother of Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle and 
host to Charles Darwin on a five-year voyage that bred the great- 
est revolution in the history of biology. 

8. Robert FitzRoy took command of the Beagle at age twenty- 
three, after the previous captain had suffered a mental break- 
down and shot himself. FitzRoy was a brilliant and ambitious 
man. He had been instructed to take the Beagle on a surveying 
voyage of the South American coast. But FitzRoy’s own plans 
extended far beyond a simple mapping trip, for he hoped to set a 
new standard of scientific observation on a much broader scale. 
To accomplish his aim, he needed more manpower than the Ad- 
miralty was willing to supply. As a person of wealth, he decided to 
take some extra passengers at his own expense, to beef up the 
Beagle's scientific mettle. 

A popular scientific myth holds that Darwin sailed on the Beagle 
as official ship’s naturalist. This is not true. The official naturalist 
was the ship’s surgeon, Robert McKormick. Darwin, who disliked 
McKormick and did eventually succeed him as naturalist (after 
the disgruntled McKormick “invalided out,” to use the euphe- 
mism of his time), originally sailed as a supernumerary passenger 
at FitzRoy’s discretion. 

Why, then, did FitzRoy tap Darwin? The obvious answer — that 
Darwin was a promising young scientist who could aid FitzRoy’s 
plans for improved observation — may be partly true, but does 
not get to the heart of FitzRoy’s reasons. First of all, Darwin may 
have possessed abundant intellectual promise, but he had no 


scientific credentials when he sailed on the Beagle — a long-stand- 
ing interest in natural history and bug collecting to be sure, but 
neither a degree in science nor an intention to enter the profes- 
sion (he was preparing for the ministry at the time). 

FitzRoy took Darwin along primarily for a much different, and 
personal, reason. As an aristocratic captain, and following the 
naval customs of his time, FitzRoy could have no social contact 
with officers or crew during long months at sea. Fie dined alone 
and conversed with his men only in an official manner. FitzRoy 
understood the psychological toll that such enforced solitude 
could impose, and he remembered the fate of the Beagle's previ- 
ous skipper. He decided on a course of action that others had 
followed in similar circumstances: He decided to take along, at 
his own expense, a supernumerary passenger to serve, in large 
part, as a mealtime companion for conversation. He therefore 
advertised discreetly among his friends for a young man of ap- 
propriate social status who cotdd act as both social companion 
and scientific aid. Charles Darwin, son of a wealthy physician and 
grandson of the great scholar Erasmus Darwin, fitted the job de- 
scription admirably. 

But most captains did not show such solicitude for their own 
mental health. Why did FitzRoy so dread the rigors of solitude? 
We cannot know for sure, but the answer seems to lie, in good 
part, with the suicide of his uncle. Lord Castlereagh. FitzRoy, by 
Darwin’s own account, was fearful of a presumed hereditary pre- 
disposition to madness, an anxiety that he embodied in the sui- 
cide of his famous uncle, whom he so much resembled in looks as 
well as temperament. Moreover, FitzRoy’s fears proved well 
founded, for he did break down and temporarily relinquish his 
command in Valparaiso during a period of overwork and tension. 
On November 8, 1 834, Darwin wrote to his sister Catherine: “We 
have had some strange proceedings on board the Beagle . . . Capt. 
FitzRoy has for the last two months, been working extremely hard 
and at the same time constantly annoyed. . . . This was accompa- 
nied by a morbid depression of spirits, and a loss of all decision 
and resolution. The Captain was afraid that his mind was becom- 
ing deranged (being aware of his hereditary predisposition). . . . 
He invalided and Wickham was appointed to the command.” 

Late in life, and with some hindsight, Darwin mused on the 
character of Captain FitzRoy in his autobiography: 


FitzRoy’s character was a singular one, with many very 
noble features: he was devoted to his duty, generous to a 
fault, bold, determined, indomitably energetic, and an ar- 
dent friend to all under his sway. . . . He was a handsome 
man, strikingly like a gentleman, with highly courteous 
manners, which resembled those of his maternal uncle, the 
famous Lord Castlereagh. . . . FitzRoy’s temper was a most 
unfortunate one. This was shown not only by passion but by 
fits of long-continued moroseness. . . . He was also some- 
what suspicious and occasionally in very low spirits, on one 
occasion bordering on insanity. He was extremely kind to 
me, but was a man very difficult to live with on the intimate 
terms which necessarily followed from our messing by our- 
selves in the same cabin. [Darwin does mean “eating,” and 
we find no sexual innuendo either here or anywhere else in 
their relationship.] 

I am struck by the similarity, according to Darwin’s description, 
between FitzRoy and his uncle, Lord Castlereagh, not only in 
physical characteristics and social training, but especially in the 
chronicle of a mental history so strongly implying a lifelong pat- 
tern of severe manic depression. In other words, I think that Fitz- 
Roy was correct in his self-diagnosis of a tendency to hereditary 
mental illness. Castlereagh’s dramatic example had served him 
well as a warning, and his decision, so prompted, to take Darwin 
on the Beagle was history’s reward. 

But suppose Canning had killed Castlereagh, rather than just 
removing a button from his coat? Would FitzRoy have developed 
so clear a premonition about his own potential troubles without 
the terrible example of his beloved uncle’s suicide during his 
most impressionable years (FitzRoy was seventeen when Cast- 
lereagh died)? Would Darwin have secured his crucial opportu- 
nity if Canning’s bullet had been on the mark? 

Tragically, FitzRoy’s premonition eventually came to pass in 
almost eerie consonance with his own nightmare and memory of 
Castlereagh. FitzRoy’s later career had its ups and downs. He 
suffered from several bouts of prolonged depression, accompa- 
nied by increasing suspicion and paranoia. In his last post, Fitz- 
Roy served as chief of the newly formed Meteorological Office 
and became a pioneer in weather forecasting. FitzRoy is much 


admired today for his cautious and excellent work in a most dif- 
ficult field. But he encountered severe criticism during his own 
tenure, and for the obvious reason. Weathermen take enough 
flak today for incorrect predictions. Imagine the greater uncer- 
tainties more than a century ago. FitzRoy was stung by criticism 
of his imprecision. With a healthy mind, he would have parried 
the blows and come out fighting. But he sank into even deeper 
despair and eventually committed suicide by slitting his throat on 
April 20, 1865. Darwin mourned for his former friend (and more 
recent enemy of evolution), noting the fulfillment of the proph- 
ecy that had fostered his own career: “His end,” Darwin wrote, 
“was a melancholy one, namely suicide, exactly like that of his 
uncle Ld. Castlereagh, whom he resembled closely in manner 
and appearance.” 

9. Finally, the other short and obvious statement: We must 
reject the self-serving historical myth that Darwin simply “saw” 
evolution in the raw when he broke free from the constraints of 
his culture and came face to face with nature all around the world. 
Darwin, in fact, did not become an evolutionist until he returned 
to England and struggled to make sense of what he had observed 
in the light of his own heritage: of Adam Smith, William Words- 
worth, and Thomas Malthus, among others. Nonetheless, with- 
out the stimulus of the Beagle, I doubt that Darwin would have 
concerned himself with the origin of species or even entered the 
profession of science at all. Five years aboard the Beagle did serve 
as the sine qua non of Darwin’s revolution in thought. 

My chain of argument runs in two directions from George Can- 
ning’s left buttock: on one branch, to Castlereagh’s survival, his 
magnanimous approach to the face-saving Treaty of Ghent, the 
consequent good feeling that made the Battle of New Orleans a 
heroic conquest rather than a bitter joke, to Andrew Jackson’s 
emergence as a military hero and national figure ripe for the 
presidency; on the other branch, to Castlereagh’s survival and 
eventual death by his own hand, to the example thus provided to 
his similarly afflicted nephew Robert FitzRoy, to FitzRoy’s conse- 
quent decision to take a social companion aboard the Beagle, to 
the choice of Darwin, to the greatest revolution in the history of 
biological thought. I he duel on Putney Heath branches out in 
innumerable directions, but one leads to Jackson’s presidency 
and the other to Darwin’s discovery. 


I don’t want to push this style of argument too far, and this 
essay is meant primarily as comedy (however feeble the attempt). 
Anyone can set out a list of contrary proposals. Jackson was a 
tough customer and might have made his way to the top without a 
boost from New Orleans. Perhaps FitzRoy didn’t need the drama 
of Castlereagh’s death to focus a legitimate fear for his own san- 
ity. Perhaps Darwin was so brilliant, so purposeful, and so des- 
tined that he needed no larger boost from nature than a beetle 
collection in an English parsonage. 

No connections are certain (for we cannot perform the experi- 
ment of replication), but history presents, as its primary fascina- 
tion, this feature of large and portentous movements arising 
from tiny quirks and circumstances that appear insignificant at 
the time but cascade into later, and unpredictable, prominence. 
The chain of events makes sense after the fact, but would never 
occur in the same way again if we could rerun the tape of time. 

I do not, of course, claim that history contains nothing predict- 
able. Many broad directions have an air of inevitability. A theory 
of evolution would have been formulated and accepted, almost 
surely in the mid-nineteenth century, if Charles Darwin had never 
been born, if only for the simple reason that evolution is true, and 
not so veiled from our sight (and insight) that discovery could 
long have tarried behind the historical passage of cultural barri- 
ers to perception. 

But we are creatures of endless and detailed curiosity. We are 
not sufficiently enlightened by abstractions devoid of flesh and 
bones, idiosyncrasies and curiosities. We cannot be satisfied by 
concluding that a thrust of Western history, and a dollop of geo- 
graphic separation, virtually guaranteed the eventual indepen- 
dence of the United States. We want to know about the 
tribulations at Valley Forge, the shape of the rude bridge that 
arched the flood at Concord, the reasons for crossing out “prop- 
erty” and substituting “pursuit of happiness” in Jefferson’s great 
document. We care deeply about Darwin’s encounter with 
Galapagos tortoises and his studies of earthworms, orchids, and 
coral reefs, even if a dozen other naturalists would have carried 
the day for evolution had Canning killed Castlereagh, FitzRoy 
sailed alone, and Darwin become a country parson. The details 
do not merely embellish an abstract tale moving in an inexorable 
way. The details are the story itself; the underlying predictability, 


if discernible at all, is too nebulous, too far in the background, 
and too devoid of hooks upon actual events to count as an expla- 
nation in any satisfying sense. 

Darwin, that great beneficiary of a thousand chains of improba- 
ble circumstance, came to understand this principle and to grasp 
thereby the essence of history in its largest domain of geology 
and life. When America’s great Christian naturalist Asa Gray told 
Darwin that he was prepared to accept the logic of natural selec- 
tion but recoiled at the moral implications of a world without 
divine guidance, Darwin cited history as a resolution. Gray, in 
obvious distress, had posed the following argument: Science im- 
plies lawfulness; laws (like the principle of natural selection) are 
instituted by God to ensure his benevolent aims in the results of 
nature; the path of history, however full of apparent sorrow and 
death, must therefore include purpose. Darwin replied that laws 
surely exist and that, for all he knew, they might well embody a 
purpose legitimately labeled divine. But, Darwin continued, laws 
only regulate the broad outlines of history, “with the details, 
whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call 
chance.” (Note Darwin’s careful choice of words. He does not 
mean “random” in the sense of uncaused; he speaks of events so 
complex and contingent that they fall, by their unpredictability 
and unrepeatability, into the domain of “what we may call 

But where shall we place the boundary between lawlike events 
and contingent details? Darwin presses Gray further. If God be 
just, Darwin holds, you could not claim that the improbable death 
of a man by lightning or the birth of a child with serious mental 
handicaps represents the general and inevitable way of our world 
(even though both events have demonstrable physical causes). 
And if you accept “what we may call chance” (the presence of this 
man under that tree at that moment) as an explanation for a 
death, then why not for a birth? And if for the birth of an individ- 
ual, why not for the origin of a species? And if for the origin of a 
species, then why not for the evolution of Homo sapiens as well? 

You can see where Darwin’s chain of argument is leading: 
Human intelligence itself— the transcendent item that, above all 
else, supposedly reflected God’s benevolence, the rule of law, 
and the necessary progress of history — might be a detail, and not 
the predictable outcome of first principles. I wouldn’t push this 


argument to an absurd extreme. Consciousness in some form 
might lie in the realm of predictability, or at least reasonable 
probability. But we care about details. Consciousness in human 
form — by means of a brain plagued with inherent paths of illogic, 
and weighted down by odd and dysfunctional inheritances, in a 
body with two eyes, two legs, and a fleshy upper thigh — is a detail 
of history, an outcome of a million improbable events, never des- 
tined to repeat. We care about George Canning’s sore behind 
because we sense, in the cascade of consequences, an analogy to 
our own tenuous existence. We revel in the details of history 
because they are the source of our being. 


Grimm’s Greatest Tale 

with the possible exception of Eng and Chang, 
who had no choice, no famous brothers have ever been closer 
than Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, who lived and worked together 
throughout their long and productive lives. Wilhelm ( 1 786— 
1859) was the prime mover in collecting the Kinder- und Hausmar- 
chen (fables for the home and for children) that have become a 
pillar and icon of our culture. (Can you even imagine a world 
without Rapunzel or Snow White?) Jacob, senior member of the 
partnership (1785-1863), maintained a primary interest in lin- 
guistics and the history of human speech. His Deutsche Grammatik, 
first published in 1819, became a cornerstone for documenting 
relationships among Indo-European languages. Late in their 
lives, after a principled resignation from the University of Gottin- 
gen (prompted by the king of Hanover’s repeal of the 1833 con- 
stitution as too liberal), the brothers Grimm settled in Berlin 
where they began their last and greatest project, the Deutsches 
Worterbuch — a gigantic German dictionary documenting the his- 
tory, etymology, and use of every word contained in three centu- 
ries of literature from Luther to Goethe. Certain scholarly 
projects are, like medieval cathedrals, too vast for completion in 
the lifetimes of their architects. Wilhelm never got past D; Jacob 
lived to see the letter F. 

Speaking in Calcutta, during the infancy of the British raj in 
1786, the philologist William Jones first noted impressive 
similarities between Sanskrit and the classical languages of 
Greece and Rome (an Indian king, or raja, matches rex, his Latin 



counterpart). Jones s observation led to the recognition of a 
great Indo-European family of languages, now spread from the 
British Isles and Scandinavia to India, but clearly rooted in a 
single, ancient origin. Jones may have marked the basic similarity, 
but the brothers Grimm were among the first to codify regulari- 
ties of change (hat underpin the diversification of the rootstock 
into its major subgroups (Romance languages, Germanic 
tongues, and so on). Grimm's law, you see, does not state that all 
frogs shall turn into princes by the story’s end, but specifies the 
characteristic changes in consonants between Proto-Indo-Euro- 
pean (as retained in Latin) and the Germanic languages. Thus, 
for example, Latin p’s become f’s in Germanic cognates (voice- 
less stops become voiceless fricatives in the jargon). The Latin 
plenum becomes "full” (voll, pronounced “foil” in German); piscis 
becomes “fish” ( Fisch in German); and pes becomes “foot” (Fuss 
in German). (Since English is an amalgam of a Germanic stock 
with Latin-based imports from the Norman conquest, our lan- 
guage has added Latin cognates to Anglo-Saxon roots altered 
according to Grimm’s law — plenty, piscine, and podiatry. We can 
even get both for the price of one in plentiful . ) 

I first learned about Grimm’s law in a college course more than 
twenty-five years ago. Somehow, the idea that the compilers of 
Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin also gave the world a great schol- 
arly principle in linguistics struck me as one of the sweetest little 
facts I ever learned — a statement, symbolic at least, about inter- 
disciplinary study and the proper contact of high and vernacular 
culture. I have wanted to disgorge this tidbit for years and am 
delighted that this essay finally provided an opportunity. 

A great dream of unification underlay the observations of 
Jones and the codification of systematic changes by Jacob Grimm. 
Nearly all the languages of Europe (with such fascinating excep- 
tions as Basque, Hungarian, and Finnish) could be joined to a 
pathway that spread through Persia all the way to India via San- 
skrit and its derivatives. An origin in the middle, somewhere in 
the Near East, seemed indicated, and such “fossil” Indo-Euro- 
pean tongues as Hiltite support this interpretation. Whether the 
languages were spread, as convention dictates, by conquering 
nomadic tribes on horseback or, as Cohn Renfrew argues in his 
recent book (Archaeology and Language, 1987), more gently and 


passively by the advantages of agriculture, evidence points to a 
single source with a complex history of proliferation in many 

Might we extend the vision of unity even further? Could we link 
Indo-European with the Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic) languages of 
the so-called Afro-Asiatic stock; the Altaic languages of Tibet, 
Mongolia, Korea, and Japan; the Dravidian tongues of southern 
India; even to the native Amerindian languages of the New 
World? Could the linkages extend even further to the languages 
of southeastern Asia (Chinese, Thai, Malay, Tagalog), the Pacific 
Islands, Australia, and New Guinea, even (dare one dream) to the 
most different tongues of southern Africa, including the Khoisan 
family with its complex clicks and implosions? 

Most scholars balk at the very thought of direct evidence for 
connections among these basic “linguistic phyla.” The peoples 
were once united, of course, but the division and spread occurred 
so long ago (or so the usual argument goes) that no traces of 
linguistic similarity should be left according to standard views 
about rates of change in such volatile aspects of human culture. 
Yet a small group of scholars, including some prominent emigres 
from the Soviet Union (where theories of linguistic unification 
are not so scorned), persists in arguing for such linkages, despite 
acrimonious rebuttal and dismissal from most Western col- 
leagues. One heterodox view tries to link Indo-European with 
linguistic phyla of the Near East and northern Asia (from Semitic 
at the southwest, to Dravidian at the southeast, all the way to 
Japanese at the northeast) by reconstructing a hypothetical an- 
cestral tongue called Nostratic (from the Latin noster, meaning 
“our”). An even more radical view holds that modern tongues 
still preserve enough traces of common ancestry to link Nostratic 
with the native languages of the Americas (all the way to South 
America via the Eskimo tongues, but excluding the puzzling Na- 
Dene languages of northwestern America). 

The vision is beguiling, but I haven’t the slightest idea whether 
any of these unorthodox notions has a prayer of success. 1 have 
no technical knowledge of linguistics, only a hobbyist’s interest in 
language. But I can report, from my own evolutionary domain, 
that the usual biological argument, invoked a priori against the 
possibility of direct linkage among linguistic phyla, no longer 
applies. This conventional argument held that Homo sapiens arose 


and split (by geographical migration) into its racial lines far too 
long ago for any hope that ancestral linguistic similarities might 
be retained by modern speakers. (A stronger version held that 
various races of Homo sapiens arose separately and in parallel from 
different stocks of Homo erectus, thus putting the point of common 
linguistic ancestry even further back into a truly inaccessible past. 
Indeed, according to this view, the distant common ancestor of 
all modern people might not even have possessed language. 
Some linguistic phyla might have arisen as separate evolutionary 
inventions, scotching any hope for theories of unification.) 

1 he latest biological evidence, mostly genetic but with some 
contribution from paleontology, strongly indicates a single and 
discrete African origin for Homo sapiens at a date much closer to 
the present than standard views would have dared to imagine — 
perhaps only 200,000 years ago or so, with all non-African diver- 
sity perhaps no more than 100,000 years old. Within this highly 
compressed framework of common ancestry, the notion that con- 
servative linguistic elements might still link existing phyla no lon- 
ger seems so absurd a priori. The idea is worth some serious 
testing, even if absolutely nothing positive eventually emerges. 

This compression of the time scale also suggests possible suc- 
cess for a potentially powerful research program into the great 
question of historical linkages among modern peoples. Three 
major and entirely independent sources of evidence might be 
used to reconstruct the human family tree: (1) direct but limited 
evidence of fossil bones and artifacts by paleontology and archae- 
ology; (2) indirect but copious data on degrees of genetic rela- 
tionship among living peoples; (3) relative similarities and 
differences among languages, as discussed above. We might at- 
tempt to correlate these separate sources, searching for similari- 
ties in pattern. I am delighted to report some marked successes in 
this direction (“Reconstruction of Human Evolution: Bringing 
Together Genetic, Archaeological, and Linguistic Data,” by L. L. 
Cavalh-Sforza, A. Piazza, P. Menozzi, and J. Mountain, Proceedings 
of the National Academy of Sciencs, 1988). The reconstruction of the 
human family tree — its branching order, its timing, and its geog- 
raphy — may be within our grasp. Since this tree is the basic datum 
of history, hardly anything in intellectual life could be more im- 

Our recently developed ability to measure genetic distances for 



large numbers of protein or DNA sequences provides the key- 
stone for resolving the human family tree. As I have argued many 
times, such genetic data take pride of place not because genes are 
“better” or “more fundamental” than data of morphology, geog- 
raphy, and language, but only because genetic data are so copi- 
ous and so comparable. We all shared a common origin, and 
therefore a common genetics and morphology, as a single ances- 
tral population some quarter of a million years ago. Since then, 
differences have accumulated as populations separated and 
diversified. As a rough guide, the more extensive the measured 
differences, the greater the time of separation. This correlation 
between extent of difference and time of separation becomes our 
chief tool for reconstructing the human family tree. 

But this relationship is only rough and very imperfect. So many 
factors can distort and disrupt a strict correlation of time and 
difference. Similar features can evolve independently — black skin 
in Africans and Australians, for example, since these groups 
stand as far apart genealogically as any two peoples on earth. 
Rates of change need not be constant. l iny populations, in par- 
ticular, can undergo marked increases in rate, primarily by ran- 
dom forces of genetic drift. The best way to work past these 
difficulties lies in a “brute force” approach: The greater the 
quantity of measured differences, the greater the likelihood of a 
primary correlation between time and overall distance. Any sin- 
gle measure of distance may be impacted by a large suite of forces 
that can disrupt the correlation of time and difference — natural 
selection, convergence, rapid genetic drift in small populations. 
But time is the only common factor underlying all measures of 
difference; when two populations split, all potential measures of 
distance become free to diverge. Thus, the more independent 
measures of distance we compile, the more likely we are to re- 
cover the only common signal of diversification: time itself. Only 
genetic data (at least for now) can supply this required richness in 
number of comparisons. 

Genetic data on human differences are flowing in from labora- 
tories throughout the world, and this essay shall be obsolete 
before it hits the presses. Blood groups provided our first crude 
insights during the 1960s, and Cavalli-Sforza was a pioneer in 
these studies. When techniques of electrophoresis permitted us 
to survey routinely for variation in the enzymes and proteins 


coded directly by genes, then data on human differences began to 
accumulate in useful cascades. More recently, our ability to se- 
quence DNA itself has given us even more immediate access to 
the sources of variation. 

The methodologically proper and powerful brute force com- 
parisons are, for the moment, best made by studying differing 
states and frequencies of genes as revealed in the amino acid 
sequences of enzymes and proteins. Cavalli-Sforza and col- 
leagues used information from alleles (varying states of genes, as 
in tall versus short for Mendel’s peas) to construct a tree for 
human populations least affected by extensive interbreeding. 
(Few human groups are entirely aboriginal, and most popula- 
tions are interbred to various degrees, given the two most charac- 
teristic attributes of Homo sapiens: wanderlust and vigorous 
sexuality. Obviously, if we wish to reconstruct the order of diver- 
sified branching from a common point of origin, historically 
mixed populations will confuse our quest. The Cape Colored, 
living disproof from their own ancestors for the Afrikaner “ideal” 
of apartheid, would join Khoisan with Caucasian. One town in 
Brazil might well join everyone.) 

Cavalli-Sforza’s consensus tree, based on overall genetic dis- 
tances among 120 alleles for 42 populations — probably the best 
we can do for now, based on the maximal amount of secure and 
consistent information — divides modern humans into seven 
major groups, as shown in the accompanying chart. Only branch- 
ing order counts in assessing relative similarity, not the happen- 
stance of alignment along the bottom of the chart. Africans are 
not closer to Caucasians than to Australians just because the two 
groups are adjacent; rather, Africans are equally far from all 
other peoples by virtue of their common branching point with the 
ancestor of all six additional groups. (Consider the diagram as a 
mobile, free to rotate about each vertical “string.” We could turn 
around the entire array of Groups II to VII, placing Australians 
next to Africans and Caucasians at the far right, without altering 
the branching order.) 

These seven basic groups, established solely on genetic dis- 
tances, make excellent sense when we consider the geographic 
distribution of Homo sapiens. Humans presumably evolved in 
Africa, and the first great split separates Africans from all other 
groups — representing the initial migration of some Homo sapiens 

Genetic Distance 







of Homo sapiens 


Nostratic and Amerindian 

Cavalli-Sforza’s consensus tree for the evolutionary relationships of 
human groups based on overall genetic distances. Postulated relation- 
ships among language families match this pattern remarkably well. See 
text for details, iromie weeramantry. courtesy of natural history. 

out of the mother continent. The next split separates the coher- 
ent region of the Pacific and Southeast Asia from the rest of the 
world. One group reached Australia and New Guinea, perhaps 
40,000 years ago, forming the aboriginal populations of this re- 
gion. A later division separated the Pacific island peoples (Group 
VI, including Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians) from 
the southeastern Asiatics (Group V, including southern Chinese, 
Thai, Malayan, and Filipino). 

Meanwhile, the second great branch divided to split the north- 
ern Oriental stocks from the Caucasians (Group II, including 


Europeans, Semitic peoples of southwest Asia, Iranians, and In- 
dians). A second division separated the Native American peoples 
(Group IV) from the northeast Asian family (Group III, including 
the Uralic peoples who left Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian as 
their non-Indo-European calling cards from invasions into Cau- 
casian territories, and the Altaic peoples of Mongolia, Korea, and 

This good and sensible order indicates that genetic data are 
not betraying our efforts to reconstruct the human family tree. 
But Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues go further toward the great 
promise of extending this correlation between genes and geogra- 
phy to the other great sources of independent information — the 
geological and linguistic records. 

I find the linguistic correlations more exciting than anything 
else in the work of Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues. Language is so 
volatile. Conquerors can impose their language as well as their 
will. Tongues interpenetrate and merge with an explosive ease 
not granted to genes or morphology. Look at English; look at any 
of us. I, for example, live in America, the indigenous home of 
very different people. I speak English, and consider the cathedral 
of Chartres the world’s most beautiful building. But my grand- 
parents spoke Hungarian, a non-Indo-European language. And, 
along with Disraeli, my more distant ancestors were priests in the 
Temple of Solomon when the physical forebears of the original 
English people still lived as “brutal savages in an unknown is- 
land.” One might have anticipated very little correlation between 
language and the tree of human ancestry. 

Yet the mapping of linguistic upon genetic tree is remarkable 
in its degree of overlap. Exceptions exist, of course, and for the 
reasons mentioned above. Ethiopians speak an Afro-Asiatic lan- 
guage (in the phylum of Hebrew and Arabic), but belong to the 
maximally distant African group by genes. The Tibetan language 
links with Chinese in Group V, although the Tibetan people be- 
long with northeast Asians in Group III. But Tibetans migrated 
from the steppes north of China, and Ethiopians have maintained 
primary contact and admixture with Semitic speakers for mil- 
lennia. The correlations, however, are striking. Each genetic 
group also defines either a single linguistic phylum or a few 
closely related phyla. The Pacific island languages, with their 
mellifluous vowels and nearly nonexistent consonants, define 


Group VI almost as well as the genetic distances. The Indo-Euro- 
pean languages set the borders of Caucasian affinity, while the 
other major tongues of Caucasian peoples (Afro-Asiatic of the 
Semitic group) belong to a related linguistic phylum. 

I am especially intrigued that the heterodox hypotheses for 
linkages among linguistic phyla, and for potential reconstruc- 
tions of human languages even closer to the original tongue, 
follow the genetic connections so faithfully. Nostradc would link 
Groups II and III. The even more heterodox connection of Nos- 
tratic with Amerindian tongues would include Group IV as well. 
Note that Groups II to IV form a coherent limb of the human 
family tree. The Tower ot Babel may emerge as a strikingly accu- 
rate metaphor. We probably did once speak the same language, 
and we did diversify into incomprehension as we spread over the 
face of the earth. But this original tongue was not an optimal 
construction given by a miracle to all people. Our original lin- 
guistic unity is only historical happenstance, not crafted perfec- 
tion. We were once a small group of Africans, and the mother 
tongue is whatever these folks said to each other, not the Holy 

This research has great importance for the obvious and most 
joyously legitimate parochial reason — our intense fascination 
with ourselves and the details of our history. We really do care 
that our species arose closer to 250,000 than to 2 million years 
ago, that Basque is the odd man out of European languages, and 
that the peopling of the Americas is not mysterious for its sup- 
posed “delay,” but part of a regular process of expansion from an 
African center, and basically “on time” after all. 

But I also sense a deeper importance in this remarkable corre- 
lation among all major criteria for reconstructing our family 
tree. This high correspondence can only mean that a great 
deal of human diversity, far more than we ever dared hope, 
achieves a remarkably simple explanation in history itself. If you 
know when a group split off and where it spread, you have the 
basic outline (in most cases) of its relationships with others. The 
primary signature of time and history is not effaced, or even 
strongly overlain in most cases, by immediate adaptation to pre- 
vailing circumstances or by recent episodes of conquest and 
amalgamation. We remain the children of our past — and we 
might even be able to pool our differences and to extract from 


inferred pathways of change a blurred portrait of our ultimate 

The path is tortuous and hard to trace, as the sister of the seven 
ravens learned when she went from the sun to the moon to the 
glass mountain in search of her brothers. History is also a hard 
taskmaster, for she covers her paths by erasing so much evidence 
from her records — as Hansel and Gretel discovered when birds 
ate their Ariadne’s thread of bread crumbs. Yet the potential re- 
wards are great, for we may recover the original state so hidden 
by our later changes — the prince behind the frog or the king that 
became the bear companion of Snow White and Rose Red. And 
the criteria that may lead to success are many and varied — not 
only the obvious data of genes and fossils but also the clues of 
language. For we must never doubt the power of names, as Rum- 
pelstiltskin learned to his sorrow. 

The Creation Myths of 

you may either look upon tlie bright side and say 
that hope springs eternal or, taking the cynic’s part, you may 
mark P.T. Barnum as an astute psychologist for his proclamation 
that suckers are born every minute. The end result is the same: 
You can, Honest Abe notwithstanding, fool most of the people all 
of the time. How else to explain the long and continuing compen- 
dium of hoaxes — from the medieval shroud of Turin to Edw ard- 
ian Piltdowm Man to an ultramodern array of flying saucers and 
astral powers — eagerly embraced for their consonance with our 
hopes or their resonance with our fears. 

Some hoaxes make a sufficient mark upon history that their 
products acquire the very status initially claimed by fakery — legit- 
imacy (although as an object of human or folkloric, rather than 
natural, history; I once held the bones of Piltdown Man and felt 
that I was handling an important item of Western culture). 

The Cardiff Giant, the best American entry for the title of pa- 
leontological hoax turned into cultural history, now lies on dis- 
play in a shed behind a barn at the Farmer’s Museum in 
Cooperstown, New York. This gypsum man, more than ten feet 
tall, was “discovered” by workmen digging a well on a farm near 
Cardiff, New York, in October 1869. Eagerly embraced by a gull- 
ible public, and ardently displayed by its creators at fifty cents a 
pop, the Cardiff Giant caused quite a brouhaha around Syracuse, 
and then nationally, for the few months of its active life between 
exhumation and exposure. 

The Cardiff Giant was the brainchild of George Hull, a cigar 
manufacturer (and general rogue) from Binghamton, New York. 



















































Sts E 

£ a 

O g u 

a) c/3 H 

3 < 


h s 

CD J- 

cT u 

o o 


8 ^ 

| < 
2 a 

to 05 

■3 H 





> s? 










■go o 

nit U 

S ^ z 

M o 

< U P 


He quarried a large block of gypsum from Fort Dodge, Iowa, and 
shipped it to Chicago, where two marble cutters fashioned the 
rough likeness of a naked man. Hull made some crude and mini- 
mal attempts to give his statue an aged appearance. He chipped 
off the carved hair and beard because experts told him that such 
items would not petrify. He drove darning needles into a wooden 
block and hammered the statue, hoping to simulate skin pores. 
Finally, he dumped a gallon of sulfuric acid all over his creation to 
simulate extended erosion. Hull then shipped his giant in a large 
box back to Cardiff. 

Hull, as an accomplished rogue, sensed that his story could not 
hold for long and, in that venerable and alliterative motto, got 
out while the getting was good. He sold a three-quarter interest 
in the Cardiff Giant to a consortium of highly respectable busi- 
nessmen, including two former mayors of Syracuse. These men 
raised the statue from its original pit on November 5 and carted it 
off to Syracuse for display. 

The hoax held on for a few more weeks, and Cardiff Giant 
fever swept the land. Debate raged in newspapers and broad- 
sheets between those who viewed the giant as a petrified fossil 
and those who regarded it as a statue wrought by an unknown 
and wondrous prehistoric race. But Hull had left too many 
tracks — at the gypsum quarries in Fort Dodge, at the carver’s 
studio in Chicago, along the roadways to Cardiff (several people 
remembered seeing an awfully large box passing by on a cart). By 
December, Hull was ready to recant, but held his tongue a while 
longer. Three months later, the two Chicago sculptors came for- 
ward, and the Cardiff Giant’s brief rendezvous with fame and 
fortune ended. 

The common analogy of the Cardiff Giant with Piltdown Man 
works only to a point (both were frauds passed off as human 
fossils) and fails in one crucial respect. Piltdown was cleverly 
wrought and fooled professionals for forty years, while the Car- 
diff Giant was preposterous from the start. How could a man turn 
to solid gypsum, while preserving all his soft anatomy, from 
cheeks to toes to penis? Geologists and paleontologists never 
accepted Hull’s statue. O. C. Marsh, later to achieve great fame as 
a discoverer of dinosaurs, echoed a professional consensus in his 
unambiguous pronouncement: “It is of very recent origin and a 
decided humbug.” 


Why, then, was the Cardiff Giant so popular, inspiring a wave 
of interest and discussion as high as any tide in the affairs of men 
during its short time in the sun? If the fraud had been well exe- 
cuted, we might attribute this great concern to the dexterity of 
the hoaxers (just as we grant grudging attention to a few of the 
most accomplished art fakers for their skills as copyists). But 
since the Cardiff Giant was so crudely done, we can only attribute 
its fame to the deep issue, the raw nerve, touched by the subject 
of its fakerv — human origins. Link an absurd concoction to a 
noble and mysterious subject and you may prevail, at least for a 
while. My opening reference to P.T. Barnum was not meant sar- 
castically; he was one of the great practical psychologists of the 
nineteenth century — and his motto applies with special force to 
the Cardiff Giant: “No humbug is great without truth at bottom.” 
(Barnum made a copy of the Cardiff Giant and exhibited it in New 
York City. His mastery of hype and publicity assured that his 
model far outdrew the “real” fake when the original went on 
display at a rival establishment in the same city.) 

For some reason (to be explored, but not resolved, in this 
essay), we are powerfully drawn to the subject of beginnings. We 
yearn to know about origins, and we readily construct myths 
when we do not have data (or we suppress data in favor of legend 
when a truth strikes us as too commonplace). The hankering after 
an origin myth has always been especially strong for the closest 
subject of all — the human race. But we extend the same psychic 
need to our accomplishments and institutions — and we have ori- 
gin myths and stories for the beginning of hunting, of language, 
of art, of kindness, of war, of boxing, bow ties, and brassieres. 
Most of us know that the Great Seal of the United States pictures 
an eagle holding a ribbon reading e plunbus unum. Fewer would 
recognize the motto on the other side (check it out on the back of 
a dollar bill): annuit coeptis — “he smiles on our beginnings.” 

Cooperstown may house the Cardiff Giant, but the fame of this 
small village in central New York does not rest upon its cele- 
brated namesake, author James Fenimore, or its lovely Lake Ot- 
sego or the Farmer’s Museum. Cooperstown is “on the map” by 
virtue of a different origin myth — one more parochial but no less 
powerful for many Americans than the tales of human beginnings 
that gave life to the Cardiff Giant. Cooperstown is the sacred 
founding place in the official myth about the origin of baseball. 


Origin myths, since they are so powerful, can engender enor- 
mous practical problems. Abner Doubleday, as we shall soon see, 
most emphatically did not invent baseball at Cooperstown in 
1839 as the official tale proclaims; in fact, no one invented base- 
ball at any moment or in any spot. Nonetheless, this creation 
myth made Cooperstown the official home of baseball, and the 
Hall of Fame, with its associated museum and library, set its roots 
in this small village, inconveniently located near nothing in the 
way of airports or accommodations. We all revel in bucolic imag- 
ery on the field of dreams, but what a hassle when tens of thou- 
sands fine the roads, restaurants, and Port-a-potties during the 
annual Hall of Fame weekend, when new members are enshrined 
and two major league teams arrive to play an exhibition game at 
Abner Doubleday Field, a sweet little 10,000-seater in the middle 
of town. Put your compass point at Cooperstown, make your ra- 
dius at Albany — and you’d better reserve a year in advance if you 
want any accommodation within the enormous resulting circle. 

After a lifetime of curiosity, I finally got the opportunity to 
witness this annual version of forty students in a telephone booth 
or twenty circus clowns in a Volkswagen. Since Yaz (former Bos- 
ton star Carl Yastrzemski to the uninitiated) was slated to receive 
baseball’s Nobel in 1989, and his old team was playing in the Hall 
of Fame game, and since I’m a transplanted Bostonian (although 
still a New Yorker and not-so-secret Yankee fan at heart), Tom 
Heitz, chief of the wonderful baseball library at the Hall of Fame, 
kindly invited me to join the sardines in this most lovely of all 

The silliest and most tendentious of baseball writing tries to 
wrest profundity from the spectacle of grown men hitting a ball 
with a stick by suggesting linkages between the sport and deep 
issues of morality, parenthood, history, lost innocence, gentle- 
ness, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. (The effort reeks of silli- 
ness because baseball is profound all by itself and needs no 
excuses; people who don’t know this are not fans and are there- 
fore unreachable anyway.) When people ask me how baseball 
imitates life, I can only respond with what the more genteel news- 
papers used to call a “barnyard epithet,” but now, with growing 
bravery, usually render as “bullbleep.” Nonetheless, baseball is a 
major item of our culture, and the sport does have a long and 
interesting history. Any item or institution with these two proper- 


ties must generate a set of myths and stories (perhaps even some 
truths) about beginnings. And the subject of beginnings is the 
bread and butter of these essays on evolution in the broadest 
sense. I shall make no woolly analogies between baseball and life; 
this is an essay on the origins of baseball, with some musings on 
why beginnings of all sorts hold such fascination for us. (I thank 

A.G. Spalding, promoter of the Doubleday creation 


Tom Heitz not only for the invitation to Cooperstown at its yearly 
acme but also for drawing the contrast between creation and evo- 
lution stories of baseball, and for supplying much useful informa- 
tion from his unparalleled storehouse.) 

Stories about beginnings come in only two basic modes. An 
entity either has an explicit point of origin, a specific time and 
place of creation, or else it evolves and has no definable moment 
of entry into the world. Baseball provides an interesting example 
of this contrast because we know the answer and can judge re- 
ceived wisdom by the two chief criteria, often opposed, of exter- 
nal fact and internal hope. Baseball evolved from a plethora of 
previous stick-and-ball games. It has no true Cooperstown and 
no Doubleday. Yet we seem to prefer the alternative model of 
origin by a moment of creation — for then we can have heroes and 
sacred places. By contrasting the myth of Cooperstown with the 
fact of evolution, we can learn something about our cultural prac- 
tices and their frequent disrespect for truth. 

The official story about the beginning of baseball is a creation 
myth, and a review of the reasons and circumstances of its fabri- 
cation may give us insight into the cultural appeal of stories in 
this mode. A. G. Spalding, baseball’s first great pitcher during his 
early career, later founded the sporting goods company that still 
bears his name and became one of the great commercial moguls 
of America’s gilded age. As publisher of the annual Spalding's 
Official Base Ball Guide, he held maximal power in shaping both 
public and institutional opinion on all facets of baseball and its 
history. As the sport grew in popularity, and the pattern of two 
stable major leagues coalesced early in our century, Spalding and 
others felt the need for clarification (or merely for codification) of 
opinion on the hitherto unrecorded origin of an activity that truly 
merited its common designation as America’s “national pas- 

In 1907, Spalding set up a blue ribbon committee to investi- 
gate and resolve the origin of baseball. The committee, chaired 
by A. G. Mills and including several prominent businessmen and 
two senators who had also served as presidents of the National 
League, took much testimony but found no smoking gun. Then, 
in July 1907, Spalding himself transmitted to the committee a 
letter from an Abner Graves, then a mining engineer in Denver, 
who reported that Abner Doubleday had, in 1839, interrupted a 


Abner Doubleday, who fired the first Union volley at Fort Sumter, but 
w ho, in the words of one historian, didn’t know a baseball from a kum- 

marbles game behind the tailor’s shop in Cooperstown, New' 
York, to draw a diagram of a baseball field, explain the rules of 
the game, and designate the activity by its modern name of “base 
ball” (then spelled as two words). 

Such “evidence” scarcely inspired universal confidence, but 
the commission came up w'ith nothing better — and the Double- 


day myth, as we shall soon see, was eminently functional. There- 
fore, in 1908, the Mills Commission reported its two chief find- 
ings: first, “that base ball had its origins in the United States”; 
and second, “that the first scheme for playing it, according to the 
best evidence available to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday, 
at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.” This “best evidence” con- 
sisted only of “a circumstantial statement by a reputable gentle- 
man” — namely Grave’s testimony as reported by Spalding 

Henry Chadwick, who knew that baseball had evolved from English 
stick-and-ball games, national baseball library, cooperstown, ny. 


When cited evidence is so laughably insufficient, one must seek 
motivations other than concern for truth. The key to underlying 
reasons stands in the first conclusion of Mills’s committee: 
Hoopla and patriotism (cardboard version) decreed that a na- 
tional pastime must have an indigenous origin. The idea that 
baseball had evolved from a wide variety of English stick-and-ball 
games — although true — did not suit the mythology of a phenom- 
enon that had become so quintessentially American. In fact, 
Spalding had long been arguing, in an amiable fashion, with 
Henry Chadwick, another pioneer and entrepreneur of baseball’s 
early years. Chadwick, born in England, had insisted for years 
that baseball had developed from the British stick-and-ball game 
called rounders; Spalding had vociferously advocated a purely 
American origin, citing the colonial game of “one old cat” as a 
distant precursor, but holding that baseball itself represented 
something so new and advanced that a pinpoint of origin — a cre- 
ation myth — must be sought. 

Chadwick considered the matter of no particular importance, 
arguing (with eminent justice) that an English origin did not “de- 
tract one iota from the merit of its now being unquestionably a 
thoroughly American held sport, and a game too, which is fully 
adapted to the American character.” (I must say that I have 
grown quite fond of Mr. Chadwick, who certainly understood 
evolutionary change and its chief principle that historical origin 
need not match contemporary function.) Chadwick also viewed 
the committee’s whitewash as a victory for his side. He labeled 
the Mills report as “a masterful piece of special pleading which 
lets my dear old friend Albert [Spalding] escape a bad defeat. 
The whole matter was a joke between Albert and myself.” 

We may accept the psychic need for an indigenous creation 
myth, but why Abner Doubleday, a man with no recorded tie to 
the game and who, in the words of Donald Honig, probably 
“didn’t know a baseball from a kumquat”? I had wondered about 
this for years, but only ran into the answer serendipitously during 
a visit to Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Caro- 
lina. There, an exhibit on the first skirmish of the Civil War points 
out that Abner Doubleday, as captain of the Union artillery, had 
personally sighted and given orders for bring the brst responsive 
volley following the initial Confederate attack on the fort. Dou- 
bleday later commanded divisions at Antietam and Fredericks- 


burg, became at least a minor hero at Gettysburg, and retired as a 
brevet major general. In fact, A. G. Mills, head of the commis- 
sion, had served as part of an honor guard when Doubleday’s 
body lay in state in New York City, following his death in 1893. 

If you have to have an American hero, could anyone be better 
than the man who fired the first shot (in defense) of the Civil 
War? Needless to say, this point was not lost on the members of 
Mills’s committee. Spalding, never one to mince words, wrote to 
the committee when submitting Graves’s dubious testimony: “It 
certainly appeals to an American pride to have had the great 
national game of base ball created and named by a Major General 
in the United States Army.” Mills then concluded in his report: 
“Perhaps in the years to come, in view of the hundreds of thou- 
sands of people who are devoted to baseball, and the millions 
who will be, Abner Doubleday’s fame will rest evenly, if not quite 
as much, upon the fact that he was its inventor ... as upon his 
brilliant and distinguished career as an officer in the Federal 

And so, spurred by a patently false creation myth, the Hall of 
Fame stands in the most incongruous and inappropriate locale of 
a charming little town in central New York. Incongruous and 
inappropriate, but somehow wonderful. Who needs another mu- 
seum in the cultural maelstroms (and summer doldrums) of New 
York, Boston, or Washington? Why not a major museum in a 
beautiful and bucolic setting? And what could be more fitting 
than the spatial conjunction of two great American origin 
myths — the Cardiff Giant and the Doubleday Fable? Thus, I too 
am quite content to treat the myth gently, while honesty requires 
’fessing up. The exhibit on Doubleday in the Hall of Fame Mu- 
seum sets just the right tone in its caption: “In the hearts of those 
who love baseball, he is remembered as the lad in the pasture 
where the game was invented. Only cynics would need to know 
more.” Only in the hearts; not in the minds. 

Baseball evolved. Since the evidence is so clear (as epitomized 
below), we must ask why these facts have been so little ap- 
preciated for so long, and why a creation myth like the Doubleday 
story ever gained a foothold. Two major reasons have conspired: 
first, the positive block of our attraction to creation stories; sec- 
ond, the negative impediment of unfamiliar sources outside the 


usual purview of historians. English stick-and-ball games of the 
nineteenth century can be roughly classified into two categories 
along social lines. The upper and educated classes played cricket, 
and the history of this sport is copiously documented because 
literati write about their own interests and because the activities 
of men in power are well recorded (and constitute virtually all of 
history, in the schoolboy version). But the ordinary pastimes of 
rural and urban working people can be well nigh invisible in con- 
ventional sources of explicit commentary. Working people 
played a different kind of stick-and-ball game, existing in various 
forms and designated by many names, including “rounders” in 
western England, “feeder” in London, and “base ball” in south- 
ern England. For a large number of reasons, forming the essen- 
tial difference between cricket and baseball, cricket matches can 
last up to several days (a batsman, for example, need not run after 
he hits the ball and need not expose himself to the possibility of 
being put out every time he makes contact). The leisure time of 
working people does not come in such generous gobs, and the 
lower-class stick-and-ball games could not run more than a few 

Several years ago, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Lon- 
don, I learned an important lesson from an excellent exhibit on 
late nineteenth century history of the British music hall. This is 
my favorite period (Darwin’s century, after all), and I consider 
myself tolerably well informed on cultural trends of the time. I 
can sing any line from any of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas (a 
largely middle-class entertainment), and I know the general drift 
of high cultural interests in literature and music. But the music 
hall provided a whole world of entertainment for millions, a 
realm with its heroes, its stars, its top-forty songs, its gaudy thea- 
ters — and I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about this world. I 
felt chagrined, but my ignorance had an explanation beyond per- 
sonal insensitivity (and the exhibit had been mounted explicitly 
to counteract the selective invisibility of certain important trends 
in history). The music hall was a chief entertainment of Victorian 
working classes, and the history of working people is often invisi- 
ble in conventional written sources. This history must be rescued 
and reconstituted from different sorts of data; in this case, from 
posters, playbills, theater accounts, persistence of some songs in 


the oral tradition (most were never published as sheet music), 
recollections of old-timers who knew the person who knew the 
person. . . . 

The early history of baseball — the stick-and-ball game of work- 
ing people — presents the same problem of conventional invisibil- 
ity, and the same promise of rescue by exploration of unusual 
sources. Work continues and intensifies as the history of sport 
becomes more and more academically respectable, but the broad 
outlines (and much fascinating detail) are now well established. 
As the upper classes played a codified and well-documented 
cricket, working people played a largely unrecorded and much 
more diversified set of stick-and-ball games ancestral to baseball. 
Many sources, including primers and boys’ manuals, depict 
games recognizable as precursors to baseball well into the eigh- 
teenth century. Occasional references even spill over into high 
culture. In Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 or 1799, Jane Austen 
remarks: “It was not very wonderful that Catherine . . . should 
prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about 
the country, at the age of fourteen, to books.” As this quotation 
illustrates, the name of the game is no more Doubleday’s than the 
form of play. 

These ancestral styles of baseball came to America with early 
settlers and were clearly well established by colonial times. But 
they were driven ever further underground by Puritan proscrip- 
tions of sport for adults. They survived largely as children’s 
games and suffered the double invisibility of location among the 
poor and the young. But two major reasons brought these games 
into wider repute and led to a codification of standard forms 
quite close to modern baseball between the 1820s and the 1850s. 
First, a set of social reasons, from the decline of Puritanism to 
increased concern about health and hygiene in crowded cities, 
made sport an acceptable activity for adults. Second, middle-class 
and professional people began to take up these early forms of 
baseball, and this upward social drift inspired teams, leagues, 
written rules, uniforms, stadiums, guidebooks: in short, all the 
paraphernalia of conventional history. 

I am not arguing that these early games could be called base- 
ball with a few trivial differences (evolution means substantial 
change, after all), but only that they stand in a complex lineage, 
better designated a nexus, from which modern baseball emerged. 



eventually in a codified and canonical form. In those days before 
instant communication, every region bad its own version, just as 
every set of outdoor steps in New York City generated a different 
form of stoopball in my youth, without threatening the basic 
identity of the game. These games, most commonly called town 
ball, differed from modern baseball in substantial ways. In the 
Massachusetts Game, a codification of the late 1 850s drawn up by 
ball players in New England towns, four bases and three strikes 
identify the genus, but many specifics are strange by modern 
standards. The bases were made of wooden stakes projecting 
four feet from the ground. The batter (called the striker) stood 
between first and fourth base. Sides changed after a single out. 
One hundred runs (called tallies), not higher score after a speci- 
fied number of innings, spelled victory. The field contained no 

A.J. Cartwright, a most interesting point in the continuum of baseball’s 
evolution, national baseball library, cooperstown, ny. 


foul lines, and balls hit in any direction were in play. Most impor- 
tant, runners were not tagged out, but rather dismissed by “plug- 
ging,” that is, being hit with a thrown ball while running between 
bases. Consequently, since baseball has never been a game for 
masochists, balls were soft — little more than rags stuffed into 
leather covers — and could not be hit far. (Tom Heitz has put 
together a team of Cooperstown worthies to re-create town ball 
for interested parties and prospective opponents. Since few other 
groups are well schooled in this lost art, Tom’s team hasn't been 
defeated in ages, if ever. “We are the New York Yankees of town 
ball,” he told me. His team is called, quite appropriately in gen- 
eral but especially for this essay, the Cardiff Giants.) 

Evolution is continual change, but not insensibly gradual tran- 
sition; in any continuum, some points are always more interesting 
than others. The conventional nomination for most salient point 
in this particular continuum goes to Alexander Joy Cartwright, 
leader of a New York team that started to play in Lower Manhat- 
tan, eventually rented some changing rooms and a held in 
Hoboken (just a quick ferry ride across the Hudson), and finally 
drew up a set of rules in 1845, later known as the New York 
Game. Cartwright’s version of town ball is much closer to mod- 
ern baseball, and many clubs followed his rules — for standardiza- 
tion became ever more vital as the popularity of early baseball 
grew and opportunity for play between regions increased. In par- 
ticular, Cartwright introduced two key innovations that shaped 
the disparate forms of town ball into a semblance of modern 
baseball. First, he eliminated plugging and introduced tagging in 
the modern sense; the ball could now be made harder, and hit- 
ting for distance became an option. Second, he introduced foul 
lines, again in the modern sense, as his batter stood at a home 
plate and had to hit the ball within lines defined from home 
through first and third bases. The game could now become a 
spectator sport because areas close to the field but out of action 
could, for the first time, be set aside for onlookers. 

The New York Game may be the highlight of a continuum, but 
it provides no origin myth for baseball. Cartwright’s rules were 
followed in various forms of town ball. His New York Game still 
included many curiosities by modern standards (twenty-one 
runs, called aces, won the game, and balls caught on one bounce 
were outs). Moreover, our modern version is an amalgam of the 


New York Game plus other town-ball traditions, not Cartwright’s 
baby grown up by itself. Several features of the Massachusetts 
Game entered the modern version in preference to Cartwright’s 
rules. Balls had to be caught on the fly in Boston, and pitchers 
threw overhand, not underhand as in the New York Game (and in 
professional baseball until die 1880 s). 

Scientists often lament that so few people understand Darwin 
and the principles of biological evolution. But the problem goes 
deeper. Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary 
modes of explanation in any form. I do not know why we tend to 
think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our 
social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to 
evolutionary stories — for creation myths, as noted before, iden- 
tify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide 
no palpable, particular object as a symbol for reverence, worship, 
or patriotism. Still, we must remember — and an intellectual’s 
most persistent and nagging responsibility lies in making this 
simple point over and over again, however noxious and bother- 
some we render ourselves thereby — that truth and desire, fact 
and comfort, have no necessary, or even preferred, correlation 
(so rejoice when they do coincide). 

To state the most obvious example in our current political tur- 
moil: Human growth is a continuum, and no creation myth can 
define an instant for the origin of an individual life. Attempts by 
anti-abortionists to designate the moment of fertilization as the 
beginning of personhood make no sense in scientific terms (and 
also violate a long history of social definitions that traditionally 
focused on the quickening, or detected movement, of the fetus in 
the womb). I will admit — indeed, I emphasized as a key argument 
of this essay — that not all points on a continuum are equal. Fertil- 
ization is a more interesting moment than most, but it no more 
provides a clean definition of origin than the most intriguing mo- 
ment of baseball’s continuum — Cartwright’s codification of the 
New York Game — defines the beginning of our national pastime. 
Baseball evolved and people grow; both are continua without 
definable points of origin. Probe too far back and you reach ab- 
surdity, for you will see Nolan Ryan on the hill when the first ape 
hit a bird with a stone, or you will define both masturbation and 
menstruation as murder — and who will then cast the first stone? 
Look for something in the middle, and you find nothing but con- 


tinuity — always a meaningful “before,” and always a more mod- 
ern “after." (Please note that I am not stating an opinion on the 
vexatious question of abortion — an ethical issue that can only be 
decided in ethical terms. I only point out that one side has rooted 
its case in an argument from science that is not only entirely 
irrelevant to the proper realm of resolution but also happens to 
be flat-out false in trying to devise a creation myth within a con- 

And besides, why do we prefer creation myths to evolutionary 
stories? I find all the usual reasons hollow. Yes, heroes and 
shrines are all very well, but is there not grandeur in the sweep of 
continuity? Shall we revel in a story for all humanity that may 
include the sacred ball courts of the Aztecs, and perhaps, for all 
we know, a group of Homo erectus hitting rocks or skulls with a 
stick or a femur? Or shall we halt beside the mythical Abner Dou- 
bleday, standing behind the tailor’s shop in Cooperstown, and 
say “behold the man” — thereby violating truth and, perhaps 
even worse, extinguishing both thought and wonder? 

The Panda’s Thumb of 

the brief story of Jephthah and his daughter 
(Judg. 11:30-40) is, to my mind and heart, the saddest of all 
biblical tragedies. Jephthah makes an intemperate vow, yet all 
must abide by its consequences. He promises that if God grant 
him victory in a forthcoming battle, he will sacrifice by fire the 
first living thing that passes through his gate to greet him upon 
his return. Expecting (I suppose) a dog or a goat, he returns 
victorious to find his daughter, and only child, waiting to meet 
him “with timbrels and with dances.” 

Handel’s last oratorio ,Jephtha, treats this tale with great power 
(although his librettist couldn’t bear the weight of the original 
and gave the story a happy ending, with angelic intervention to 
sparejephthah’s daughter at the price of her lifelong chastity). At 
the end of Fart 2, w hile all still think that the terrible vow must be 
fulfilled, the chorus sings one of Handel’s wonderful “philosoph- 
ical” choruses. It begins with a frank account of the tragic circum- 

How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees! . . . 

No certain bliss, no solid peace, 

We mortals know on earth below. 

Yet the last two lines, in a curious about-face, proclaim (with 
magnificent musical solidity as well): 

Yet on this maxim still obey: 




This odd reversal, from frank acknowledgment to unreason- 
able acceptance, reflects one of the greatest biases (“hopes” I like 
to call them) that human thought imposes upon a world indiffer- 
ent to our suffering. Humans are pattern-seeking animals. We 
must And cause and meaning in all events (quite apart from the 
probable reality that the universe both doesn’t care much about 
us and often operates in a random manner). I call this bias “adap- 
tationism” — the notion that everything must fit, must have a pur- 
pose, and in the strongest version, must be for the best. 

The final line of Handel’s chorus is, of course, a quote from 
Alexander Pope, the last statement of the first epistle of his Essay 
on Man, published twenty years before Handel’s oratorio. Pope’s 
text contains (in heroic couplets to boot) the most striking paean 
I know to the bias of adaptationism. In my favorite lines, Pope 
chastises those people who may be unsatisfied with the senses 
that nature bestowed upon us. We may wish for more acute vi- 
sion, hearing, or smell, but consider the consequences. 

If nature thunder’d in his op’ning ears 

And stunn’d him with the music of the spheres 

How would he wish that Heav’n had left him still 

The whisp’ring zephyr, and the purling rill! 

And my favorite couplet, on olfaction: 

Or, quick effluvia darting thro’ the brain, 

Die of a rose in aromatic pain. 

What we have is best for us — whatever is, is right. 

By 1859, most educated people were prepared to accept evolu- 
tion as the reason behind similarities and differences among or- 
ganisms — thus accounting for Darwin’s rapid conquest of the 
intellectual world. But they were decidedly not ready to acknowl- 
edge the radical implications of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of 
change, natural selection, thus explaining the brouhaha that the 
Ongin of Species provoked— and still elicits (at least before our 
courts and school boards). 

Darwin’s world is full of “terrible truths,” two in particular. 
First, when things do fit and make sense (good design of orga- 
nisms, harmony of ecosystems), they did not arise because the 


laws of nature entail such order as a primary effect. They are, 
rather, only epiphenomena, side consequences of the basic 
causal process at work in natural populations — the purely “self- 
ish” struggle among organisms for personal reproductive suc- 
cess. Second, the complex and curious pathways of history 
guarantee that most organisms and ecosystems cannot be de- 
signed optimally. Indeed, to make an even stronger statement, 
imperfections are the primary proofs that evolution has occurred, 
since optimal designs erase all signposts of history. 

This principle of imperfection has been a major theme of my 
essays for several years. I call it the panda principle to honor my 
favorite example, the panda’s false thumb. Pandas are the herbiv- 
orous descendants of carnivorous bears. Their true anatomical 
thumbs were, long ago during ancestral days of meat eating, ir- 
revocably committed to the limited motion appropriate for this 
mode of life and universally evolved by mammalian Carnivora. 
When adaptation to a diet of bamboo required more flexibility in 
manipulation, pandas could not redesign their thumbs but had to 
make do with a makeshift substitute — an enlarged radial sesa- 
moid bone of the wrist, the panda’s false thumb. The sesamoid 
thumb is a clumsy, suboptimal structure, but it works. Pathways 
of history (commitment of the true thumb to other roles during 
an irreversible past) impose such jury-rigged solutions upon all 
creatures. History inheres in the imperfections of living orga- 
nisms — and thus we know that modern creatures had a different 
past, converted by evolution to their current state. 

We can accept this argument for organisms (we know, after all, 
about our own appendixes and aching backs). But is the panda 
principle more pervasive? Is it a general statement about all his- 
torical systems? Will it apply, for example, to the products of 
technology? We might deem this principle irrelevant to the man- 
ufactured objects of human ingenuity — and for good reason. 
After all, constraints of genealogy do not apply to steel, glass, and 
plastic. The panda cannot shuck its digits (and can only build its 
future upon an inherited ground plan), but we can abandon gas 
lamps for electricity and horse carriages for motor cars. Con- 
sider, for example, the difference between organic architecture 
and human buildings. Complex organic structures cannot be re- 
evolved following their loss; no snake will redevelop front legs. 
But the apostles of post-modern architecture, in reaction to the 


sterility of so many glass-box buildings of the international style, 
havejuggled together all the classical forms of history in a cascad- 
ing effort to rediscover the virtues of ornamentation. Thus, Philip 
Johnson could place a broken pediment atop a New York sky- 
scraper and raise a medieval castle of plate glass in downtown 
Pittsburgh. Organisms cannot recruit the virtues of their lost 

Yet I am not so sure that technology is exempt from the panda 
principle of history, for I am now sitting face to face with the best 
example of its application. Indeed, I am in most intimate (and 
striking) contact with this object — the typewriter keyboard. 

I could type before I could write. My father was a court stenog- 
rapher, and my mother is a typist. I learned proper eight-finger 
touch-typing when I was about nine years old and still endowed 
with small hands and weak, tiny pinky fingers. I was thus, from the 
first, in a particularly good position to appreciate the irrationality 
of placement for letters on the standard keyboard — called 
QWERTY' by all aficionados in honor of the first six letters on the 
top letter row. 

Clearly, QWERTY makes no sense (beyond the whiz and joy of 
typing QWERTY itself). More than 70 percent of English words 
can be typed with the letters DHIATENSOR, and these should be 
on the most accessible second, or home, row — as they were in a 
failed competitor to QWERTY introduced as early as 1893. But 
in QWERTY, the most common English letter, E, requires a 
reach to the top row, as do the vowels U, I, and O (with O struck 
by the weak fourth finger), while A remains in the home row but 
must be typed with the weakest finger of all (at least for the dex- 
terous majority of right-handers) — the left pinky. (How I strug- 
gled with this as a boy. I just couldn’t depress that key. I once 
tried to type the Declaration of Independence and ended up with: 
th t Ilmen re ere ted equ 1.) 

As a dramatic illustration of this irrationality, consider the ac- 
companying photograph, the keyboard of an ancient Smith-Co- 
rona upright, identical with the one (my dad's original) that I use 
to type these essays (a magnificent machine — no breakdown in 
twenty years and a fluidity of motion unmatched by any manual 
typewriter since). After more than half a century of use, some of 
the most commonly struck keys have been worn right through the 
surface into the soft pad below (they weren’t solid plastic in those 



days). Note that E, A, and S are worn in this way — but note also 
that all three are either not in the home row or are struck with the 
weak fourth and pinky fingers in QWERTY. 

This claim is not just a conjecture based on idiosyncratic 
personal experience. Evidence clearly shows that QWERTY is 
drastically suboptimal. Competitors have abounded since the 
early days ol typewriting, but none has supplanted or even 
dented the universal dominance of QWERTY for English type- 
writers. I he best-known alternative, DSK, for Dvorak Simplified 
Keyboard, was introduced in 1932. Since then, virtually all rec- 
ords for speed typing have been held by DSK, not QWERTY, 
typists. During the 1940s, the U.S. Navy, ever mindful of effi- 
ciency, found that the increased speed of DSK would amortize 
the cost of retraining typists within ten days of full employment. 
(Mr. Dvorak was not Anton of the New World Symphony, but Au- 
gust, a professor of education at the University of Washington, 
who died disappointed in 1975. Dvorak was a disciple of Frank B. 
Gilbreth, pioneer of time and motion studies in industrial 

Since I have a special interest in typewriters (my affection for 
them dates to childhood days of splendor in the grass and glory 
in the flower), I have wanted to write such an essay for years. But 
I never had the data 1 needed until Paul A. David, Coe Professor 
of American Economic History at Stanford University, kindly 
sent me his fascinating article, “Understanding the Economics of 
QWERTY: The Necessity of History” (in Economic History and the 
Modern Economist, edited by W. N. Parker, New York, Basil Black- 
well Inc., 1986, pp. 30-49). Virtually all the nonidiosyncratic data 
in this essay come from David’s work, and I thank him for this 
opportunity to satiate an old desire. 

The puzzle of QWERTY’s dominance resides in two separate 
questions: Why did QWERTY ever arise in the first place? And 
why has QWER I Y survived in the face of superior competitors? 

My answers to these questions will invoke analogies to princi- 
ples of evolutionary theory. Let me, then, state some ground 
rules for such a questionable enterprise. I am convinced that 
comparisons between biological evolution and human cultural or 
technological change have done vastly more harm than good — 
and examples abound of this most common of all intellectual 
traps. Biological evolution is a bad analogue for cultural change 


A classic upright typewriter of World War I vintage. Brother to the 
machine that I use to write these essays. 

Notice the patterns of wear for most frequently used keys, as illustrated 
by breakage through the surface after so many years of striking. In 
QWERTY , all the most common keys are either not in the home row, 
or are hit by weak fingers in the home row— thus illustrating the subopti- 
mality of this standard arrangement. 

i j'C' ^ 

ip © <a k© ® i. i a -i = 

® 6 (s> .© ® © © ® ® , 4T 

) © <b> © © © © ® © o @ 


A keyboard for a typewriter made in the 1880’s, illustrating one of the 
many competing non-QWERTY arrangements so common at the time. 

because the two systems are so different for three major reasons 
that could hardly be more fundamental. 

first, cultural evolution can be faster by orders of magnitude 
than biological change at its maximal Darwinian rate — and ques- 
tions of timing are of the essence in evolutionary arguments. Sec- 
ond, cultural evolution is direct and Lamarckian in form: The 
achievements of one generation are passed by education and pub- 
lication directly to descendants, thus producing the great poten- 
tial speed of cultural change. Biological evolution is indirect and 
Darwinian, as favorable traits do not descend to the next genera- 
tion unless, by good fortune, they arise as products of genetic 
change. 1 hird, the basic topologies of biological and cultural 
change are completely different. Biological evolution is a system 
of constant divergence without subsequent joining of branches. 
Lineages, once distinct, are separate forever. In human history, 
transmission across lineages is, perhaps, the major source of 
cultural change. Europeans learned about corn and potatoes 
from Native Americans and gave them smallpox in return. 


So, when I compare the panda’s thumb with a typewriter key- 
board, I am not attempting to derive or explain technological 
change by biological principles. Rather, I ask if both systems 
might not record common, deeper principles of organization. 
Biological evolution is powered by natural selection, cultural ev- 
olution by a different set of principles that I understand but 
dimly. But both are systems of historical change. More general 
principles of structure must underlie all systems that proceed 
through history (perhaps I now only show my own bias for intelli- 
gibility in our complex world) — and I rather suspect that the 
panda principle of imperfection might reside among them. 

My main point, in other words, is not that typewriters are like 
biological evolution (for such an argument would fall right into 
the nonsense of false analogy), but that both keyboards and the 
panda’s thumb, as products of history, must be subject to some 
regularities governing the nature of temporal connections. As 
scientists, we must believe that general principles underlie struc- 
turally related systems that proceed by different overt rules. The 
proper unity lies not in false applications of these overt rules (like 
natural selection) to alien domains (like technological change), 
but in seeking the more general rules of structure and change 

The Origin of QWERTY: True randomness has limited power to 
intrude itself into the forms of organisms. Small and unimportant 
changes, unrelated to the working integrity of a complex crea- 
ture, may drift in and out of populations by a process akin to 
throwing dice. But intricate structures, involving the coordina- 
tion of many separate parts, must arise for an active reason — 
since the bounds of mathematical probability for fortuitous 
association are soon exceeded as the number of working parts 

But if complex structures must arise for a reason, history may 
soon overtake the original purpose — and what was once a sensi- 
ble solution becomes an oddity or imperfection in the altered 
context of a new future. Thus, the panda’s true thumb perma- 
nently lost its ability to manipulate objects when carnivorous 
ancestors found a better use for this digit in the limited motions 
appropriate for creatures that run and claw. This altered thumb 


then becomes a constraint imposed by past history upon the 
panda’s ability to adapt in an optimal way to its new context of 
herbivory. The panda’s thumb, in short, becomes an emblem of 
its different past, a sign of history. 

Similarly, QWERTY had an eminently sensible rationale in the 
early technology of typewriting but soon became a constraint 
upon faster typing as advances in construction erased the reason 
for QWERTY’s origin. The key (pardon the pun) to QWERTY’s 
origin lies in another historical vestige easily visible on the sec- 
ond row of letters. Note the sequence: DFGHJKL — a good 
stretch of the alphabet in order, with the vowels E and I removed. 
The original concept must have simply arrayed the letters in al- 
phabetical order. Why were the two most common letters of this 
sequence removed from the most accessible home row? And why 
were other letters dispersed to odd positions? 

Those who remember the foibles of manual typewriters (or, if 
as hidebound as yours truly, still use them) know that excessive 
speed or unevenness of stroke may cause two or more keys to jam 
near the striking point. You also know that if you don’t reach in 
and pull the keys apart, any subsequent stroke will type a repeti- 
tion of the key leading the jam — as any key subsequently struck 
will hit the back of the jammed keys and drive them closer to the 
striking point. 

These problems were magnified in the crude technology of 
early machines — and too much speed became a hazard rather 
than a blessing, as key jams canceled the benefits of celerity. 
Thus, in the great human traditions of tinkering and pragmatism, 
keys were moved around to find a proper balance between speed 
and jamming. In other words — and here comes the epitome of 
the tale in a phrase — QWERTY arose in order to slow down the 
maximal speed of typing and prevent jamming of keys. Common 
letters were either allotted to weak fingers or dispersed to posi- 
tions requiring a long stretch from the home row. 

This basic story has gotten around, thanks to short takes in 
Time and other popular magazines, but the details are enlighten- 
ing, and few people have the story straight. I have asked nine 
typists who knew this outline of QWERTY’s origin and all (plus 
me for an even ten) had the same misconception. The old ma- 
chines that imposed QWERTY were, we thought, of modern de- 


sign — with keys in front typing a visible line on paper rolled 
around a platen. This leads to a minor puzzle: Key jams may be a 
pain in the butt, but you see them right away and can easily reach 
in and pull them apart. So why QWERTY? 

As David points out, the prototype of QWERTY, a machine 
invented by C. L. Sholes in the 1860s, was quite different in form 
from modern typewriters. It had a flat paper carriage and did not 
roll paper right around the platen. Keys struck the paper invisibly 
from beneath, not patently from the front as in all modern type- 
writers. You could not view what you were typing unless you 
stopped to raise the carriage and inspect your product. Keys 
jammed frequently, but you could not see (and often did not feel) 
the aggregation. Thus, you might type a whole page of deathless 
prose and emerge only with a long string of E’s. 

Sholes filed for a patent in 1867 and spent the next six years in 
trial-and-error efforts to improve his machine. QWERTY 
emerged from this period of tinkering and compromise. As an- 
other added wrinkle (and fine illustration of history’s odd quirks), 
R joined the top row as a last-minute entry, and for a somewhat 
capricious motive according to one common tale (perhaps apoc- 
ryphal) — for salesmen could then impress potential buyers by 
smooth and rapid production of the brand name TYPE 
WRITER, all on one row. (Although I wonder how many sales 
were lost when TYPE EEEEEE appeared after a jam!) 

The Survival of QWERTY: We can all accept this story of 
QWERTY’s origin, but why did it persist after the introduction 
of the modern platen roller and front-stroke key? (The first type- 
writer with a fully visible printing point was introduced in 1890.) 
In fact, the situation is even more puzzling. I thought that alterna- 
tives to keystroke typing only became available with the IBM 
electric ball, but none other than Thomas Edison filed a patent 
for an electric print-wheel machine as early as 1872, and L. S. 
Crandall marketed a writing machine without typebars in 1879. 
(Crandall arranged his type on a cylindrical sleeve and made the 
sleeve revolve to the required letter before striking the printing 

The 1880s were boom years for the fledgling typewriter indus- 
try, a period when a hundred flowers bloomed and a hundred 


schools of thought contended. Alternatives to QWERTY were 
touted by several companies, and both the variety of printing 
designs (several without typebars) and the improvement of key- 
stroke typewriters completely removed the original rationale for 
QWERTY. Yet during the 1890s, more and more companies 
made the switch to QWERTY, which became an industry stan- 
dard by the early years of our century. And QWERTY has held on 
stubbornly, through the introduction of the IBM Selectric and 
the Hollerith punch card machine to that ultimate example of its 
nonnecessity, the microcomputer terminal. 

To understand the survival (and domination to this day) of 
drastically suboptimal QWERTY, we must recognize two other 
commonplaces of history, as applicable to life in geological time 
as to technology over decades — contingency and incumbency. 
We call a historical event — the rise of mammals or the dominance 
of QWERTY — contingent when it occurs as the chancy result of a 
long string of unpredictable antecedents, rather than as a neces- 
sary outcome of nature’s laws. Such contingent events often de- 
pend crucially upon choices from a distant past that seemed tiny 
and trivial at the time. Minor perturbations early in the game can 
nudge a process into a new pathway, with cascading conse- 
quences that produce an outcome vastly different from any alter- 

Incumbency also reinforces the stability of a pathway once the 
little quirks of early flexibility push a sequence into a firm chan- 
nel. Suboptimal politicians often prevail nearly forever once they 
gain office and grab the reins of privilege, patronage, and visibil- 
ity. Mammals waited 100 million years to become the dominant 
animals on land and only got a chance because dinosaurs suc- 
cumbed during a mass extinction. If every typist in the world 
stopped using QWERTY tomorrow and began to learn Dvorak, 
we would all be winners, but who will bell the cat or start the ball 
rolling? (Choose your cliche, for they all record this evident 
truth.) Stasis is the norm for complex systems; change, when pro- 
voked at all, is usually rapid and episodic. 

QWERTY’s fortunate and improbable ascent to incumbency 
occurred by a concatenation of circumstances, each indecisive in 
itself, but all probably necessary for the eventual outcome. Rem- 
ington had marketed the Sholes machine with its QWERTY key- 


board, but this early tie with a major firm did not secure 
QWERTY’s victory. Competition was tough, and no lead meant 
much with such small numbers in an expanding market. David 
estimates that only 5,000 or so QWERTY machines existed at the 
beginning of the 1880s. 

The push to incumbency was complex and multifaceted, de- 
pendent more upon the software of teachers and promoters than 
upon the hardware of improving machines. Most early typists 
used idiosyncratic hunt-and-peck, few-fingered methods. In 
1882, Ms. Longley, founder of the Shorthand and Typewriter 
Institute in Cincinnati, developed and began to teach the eight- 
finger typing that professionals use today. She happened to teach 
with a QWERTY keyboard, although many competing arrange- 
ments would have served her purposes as well. She also pub- 
lished a popular do-it-yourself pamphlet. At the same time. 
Remington began to set up schools for typewriting using (of 
course) its QWERTY standard. The QWERTY ball was rolling 
but this head start did not guarantee a place at the summit. Many 
other schools taught rival methods on different machines and 
might have gained an edge. 

Then a crucial event in 1888 probably added the decisive incre- 
ment to QWERTY’s small advantage. Longley was challenged to 
prove the superiority of her eight-finger method by Louis Taub, 
another Cincinnati typing teacher, who worked with four fingers 
on a rival non-QWERTY keyboard with six rows, no shift action, 
and (therefore) separate keys for upper- and lowercase letters. As 
her champion, Longley engaged Frank E. McGurrin, an experi- 
enced QWERTY typist who had given himself a decisive advan- 
tage that, apparently, no one had utilized before. He had 
memorized the QWERTY keyboard and could therefore operate 
his machine as all competent typists do today — by what we now 
call touch-typing. McGurrin trounced Taub in a well-advertised 
and well-reported public competition. 

In public perception, and (more important) in the eyes of those 
who ran typing schools and published typing manuals, QWERTY 
had proved its superiority. But no such victory had really occur- 
red. The tie of McGurrin to QWERTY was fortuitous and a good 
break for Longley and for Remington. We shall never know why 
McGurrin won, but reasons quite independent of QWERTY cry 


out for recognition: touch-typing over hunt-and-peck, eight fin- 
gers over four fingers, the three-row letter board with a shift key 
versus the six-row board with two separate keys for each letter. 
An array of competitions that would have tested QWERTY were 
never held — QWERTY versus other arrangements of letters with 
both contestants using eight-finger touch-typing on a three-row 
keyboard, or McGurrin’s method of eight-finger touch-typing on 
a non-QWERTY three-row keyboard versus Taub’s procedure to 
see whether the QWERTY arrangement (as I doubt) or McGur- 
rin’s method (as I suspect) had secured his success. 

In any case, the QWERTY steamroller now gained crucial mo- 
mentum and prevailed early in our century. As touch-typing by 
QWERTY became the norm in America’s typing schools, rival 
manufacturers (especially in a rapidly expanding market) could 
adapt their machines more easily than people could change their 
habits — and the industry settled upon the wrong standard. 

If Sholes had not gained his tie to Remington, if the first typist 
who decided to memorize a keyboard had used a non-QWERTY 
design, if McGurrin had a bellyache or drank too much the night 
before, if Longley had not been so zealous, if a hundred other 
perfectly possible things had happened, then I might be typing 
this essay with more speed and much greater economy of finger 

But why fret over lost optimality. History always works this 
way. If Montcalm had won a battle on the Plains of Abraham, 
perhaps I would be typing en fran^ais. If a portion of the African 
jungles had not dried to savannas, I might still be an ape up a 
tree. If some comets had not struck the earth (if they did) some 60 
million years ago, dinosaurs might still rule the land, and all 
mammals would be rat-sized creatures scurrying about in the 
dark corners of their world. If Pikaia, the only chordate of the 
Burgess Shale, had not survived the great sorting out of body 
plans after the Cambrian explosion, mammals might not exist at 
all. If multicellular creatures had never evolved after five-sixths of 
life’s history had yielded nothing more complicated than an algal 
mat, the sun might explode a few billion years hence with no 
multicellular witness to the earth’s destruction. 

Compared with these weighty possibilities, my indenture to 
QWERTY seems a small price indeed for the rewards of history. 


For if history were not so maddeningly quirky, we would not be 
here to enjoy it. Streamlined optimality contains no seeds for 
change. We need our odd little world, where QWERTY rules and 
the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.* 


Since typing falls into the category of things that many, if not 
most of us, can do (like walking and chewing gum simulta- 
neously) this essay elicited more commentary than most of my 
more obscure ramblings. 

Some queried the central premises and logic. An interesting 
letter from Folsom Prison made a valid point in the tough humor 
of such institutions. (I receive many letters from prisoners and 
am always delighted by such reminders that, at least for many 
people, the quest for knowledge never abates, even in most un- 
congenial temporary domiciles): 

Some of us were left with a nagging question: If the hunt ’n 
peck method prevailed until around 1882 , how could 
Sholes or his cohorts have “relegated common letters to 
weak fingers” when there were no weak fingers, just hunt ’n 
peck type fingers? At least none of the hunt ’n peck typing 
clerks or cops around here use the weak fingers. If you 
could find the time to answer this it would really be ap- 
preciated and could serve to reduce the likelihood of in- 
creased violence at Folsom between opposing QWERTY 
origin factions. 

My correspondent is quite right, and I misspoke (I also trust 
that recent tension at Folsom had sources other than the great 
typewriter wars — yes, I did answer the letter promptly). Fortu- 

*1 must close with a pedantic footnote, lest nonaficionados be utterly perplexed 
by this ending. This quirky juxtaposition of uncongenial carnivores is said to be 
the shortest English sentence that contains all twenty-six letters. It is, as such, de 
rigueur in all manuals that teach typing. 


nately, my hypothesis is secure against my own carelessness — for 
Sholes needed simply to separate frequently struck keys to avoid 
jamming. 1 he finger used to strike mattered little (I also rather 
suspect that many people were experimenting with many-fin- 
gered typing before the full four-fingered methods became 

But the vast bulk of correspondence, more than 80 percent, 
took issue with my throwaway and tangential last line — thanks to 
our long-standing and happy fascination with words and word 
games. I gave the conventional typist’s sentence as being the 
shortest phrase using all letters: 

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. 

I have since learned that sentences containing all letters of the 
alphabet are called “pangrams,” and that the quest for the short- 
est represents at least a minor industry, with much effort spent, 
and opposing factions with strong passions. Many readers sug- 
gested, as a well-known alternative with three fewer letters (32 
versus 35), 

Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. 

Zoological enthusiasts and prohibitionists then retort that the 
fox-dog classic can still tie by dropping the first article and 
becoming only slightly less grammatical: 

Quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. 

But 1 ed Leather wins this limited derby for shortest sensible 
pangram with the 31-stroke 

Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz. 

We now enter the world of arcana. Can shorter pangrams be 
made? Can the ultimate 26-letter sentence be constructed? This 
quest has so far stymied all wordsmiths. Using common words 
only, we can get down to 28 (but only by the slightly dishonorable 
route of using proper names): 


Waltz, nymph, for quick jigs vex Bud. 

And to 27, with some archaic orthography: 

Frowzy things plumb vex’d Jack Q. 

But for the ultimate of 26, we either use initials in abundance 
(which doesn’t seem quite fair), 

J. Q. Schwartz flung V. D. Pike my box, 

or we avoid names and initials, but employ such unfamiliar and 
marginally admissable words that an equal feeling of dissatisfac- 
tion arises, 

Zing! Vext cwm fly jabs Kurd qoph. 

A cwm is a mountain hollow in Wales, while qoph, the nineteenth 
letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has been drawn (and has attracted 
the ire of an immigrant fly) by a member of an Iranian minority. 
Sounds awfully improbable. 

My favorite proposal for a 26-letter pangram requires an entire 
story for comprehension (thanks to Dan Lufkin of Hood Col- 

During World War I, Lawrence’s Arab Legion was operat- 
ing on the southern flank of the Ottoman Empire. Ham- 
pered by artillery fire from across a river, Lawrence asked 
for a volunteer to cross the river at night and locate the 
enemy guns. An Egyptian soldier stepped forward. The 
man was assigned to Lawrence’s headquarters [G.H.Q. for 
“general headquarters” — this becomes important later] 
and had a reputation for bringing bad luck. But Lawrence 
decided to send him. The mission was successful and the 
soldier appeared, at dawn the next morning, at a remote 
sentry post near the river, dripping wet, shivering, and clad 
in nothing but his underwear and native regimental head- 
gear. The sentry wired to Lawrence for instructions, and he 

Warm plucky G.H.Q. jinx, fez to B.V.D.’s. 

A free copy of this and all my subsequent books to anyone who 
can construct a 26 -letter pangram with common words only and 
no proper names. 



Bully for Brontosaurus 

question: What do Catherine the Great, Attila the 
Hun, and Bozo the Clown have in common? Answer: They all 
have the same middle name. 

Question: What do San Marino, Tannu Tuva, and Monaco 
have in common? Answer: They all realized that they could print 
pretty pieces of perforated paper, call them stamps, and sell them 
at remarkable prices to philatelists throughout the world. (Did 
these items ever bear any relationship to postage or utility? Does 
anyone own a canceled stamp from Tannu Tuva?) Some differ- 
ences, however, must be admitted. Although San Marino (a tiny 
principality within Italy) and Tannu Tuva (a former state adjacent 
to Mongolia but now annexed to the Soviet Union) may rely on 
stamps for a significant fraction of their GNP, Monaco, as we all 
know, has another considerable source of outside income — the 
casino of Monte Carlo (nurtured by all the hype and elegance of 
the Grimaldis — Prince Rainier, Grace Kelly, and all that). 

So completely do we identify Monaco with Monte Carlo that we 
can scarcely imagine any other activity, particularly something 
productive, taking place in this little land of fantasy and fractured 

Nonetheless, people are born, work, and die in Monaco. And 
this tiny nation boasts, among other amenities, a fine station for 
oceanographic research. This combination of science and hos- 
telry makes Monaco an excellent place for large professional 
meetings. In 1913, Monaco hosted the International Zoological 
Congress, the largest of all meetings within my clan. This 1913 
gathering adopted the important Article 79, or “plenary powers 



decision,” stating that “when stability of nomenclature is threat- 
ened in an individual case, the strict application of the Code may 
under specified conditions be suspended by the International 
Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.” 

Now I will not blame any reader for puzzlement over the last 
paragraph. The topic — rules for giving scientific names to organ- 
isms — is easy enough to infer. But why should we be concerned 
with such legalistic arcana? Bear with me. We shall detour around 
the coils of Boa constrictor, meet the International Code of Zoolog- 
ical Nomenclature head-on, and finally arrive at a hot issue now 
generating much passion and acrimony at the heart of our great- 
est contemporary fad. You may deny all concern for rules of tax- 
onomy, our last domain of active Latin (now that Catholicism has 
embraced the vernacular), but millions of Americans are now bet 
up about the proper name of Brontosaurus , the canonical dino- 
saur. And you can’t grasp the name of the beast without engaging 
the beastly rules of naming. 

Nonprofessionals often bridle at the complex Latin titles used 
by naturalists as official designations for organisms. Latin is a 
historical legacy from the foundation of modern taxonomy in the 
mid-eighteenth century — a precomputer age when Romespeak 
was the only language shared by scientists throughout the world. 
The names may seem cumbersome, now that most of us pass our 
youthful years before a television set, rather than declaiming h\c- 
haec-hoc and amo-amas-amat. But the principle remains sound. Ef- 
fective communication demands that organisms have official 
names, uniformly recognized in all countries, while a world of 
changing concepts and increasing knowledge requires that rules 
of naming foster maximal stability and minimal disruption. 

New species are discovered every day; old names must often 
change as we correct past errors and add new information. If 
every change of concept demanded a redesignation of all names 
and a reordering of all categories, natural history would devolve 
into chaos. Our communications would fail as species, the basic 
units of all our discourse, would have no recognized labels. All 
past literature would be a tangle of changing designations, and 
we could not read without a concordance longer than the twenty 
volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. 

The rules for naming animals are codified in the International 
Code of Zoological Nomenclature , as adopted and continually revised 


by the International Union of Biological Sciences (plant people 
have a different code based on similar principles). The latest edi- 
tion (1985), bound in bright red, runs to 338 pages. I will not 
attempt to summarize the contents, but only state the primary 
goal: to promote maximal stability as new knowledge demands 

Consider the most prevalent problem demanding a solution in 
the service of stability: When a single species has been given two 
or more names, how do we decide which to validate and which to 
reject? 1'his common situation can arise for several reasons: Two 
scientists, each unaware of the other’s work, may name the same 
animal; or a single scientist, mistaking a variable species for two 
or more separate entities, may give more than one name to mem- 
bers of the same species. A simple and commonsensical approach 
might attempt to resolve all such disputes with a principle of 
priority — let the oldest name prevail. In practice, such “obvious” 
solutions rarely work. The history of taxonomy since Linnaeus 
has featured three sequential approaches to this classic problem. 

1 . Appropriateness. Modern nomenclature dates from the publi- 
cation, in 1758, of the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae. 
In principle, Linnaeus endorsed the rule of priority. In practice, 
he and most of his immediate successors commonly changed 
names for reasons, often idiosyncratic, of supposed “appropri- 
ateness.” If the literal Latin of an original name ceased to be an 
accurate descriptor, new names were often devised. (For exam- 
ple, a species originally named flondensis to denote a restricted 
geographic domain might be renamed amencanus if it later spread 
throughout the country.) 

Some unscrupulous taxonomists used appropriateness as a 
thinly veiled tactic to place their own stamp upon species by raid- 
ing rather than by scientific effort. A profession supposedly dedi- 
cated to expanding knowledge about things began to founder 
into a quagmire of arguments about names. In the light of such 
human foibles, appropriateness could not work as a primary cri- 
terion for taxonomic names. 

2. Priority. The near anarchy of appropriateness provoked a 
chorus of demands for reform and codification. The British Asso- 
ciation for the Advancement of Science finally appointed a com- 
mittee to formulate a set of official rules for nomenclature. The 
Strickland Committee, obedient to the age-old principle that 


periods of permissiveness lead to stretches of law ’n’ order 
(before the cycle swings round again), reported in 1842 with a 
“strict construction” that must have brought joy to all Robert 
Borks of the day. Priority in publication shall be absolutely and 
uncompromisingly enforced. No ifs, ands, buts, quibbles, or ex- 

This decision may have ended the anarchy of capricious 
change, but it introduced another impediment, perhaps even 
worse, based on the exaltation of incompetence. When new spe- 
cies are introduced by respected scientists, in widely read publi- 
cations with clear descriptions and good illustrations, people take 
notice and the names pass into general use. But when Ignatz 
Doofus publishes a new name with a crummy drawing and a few 
lines of telegraphic and muddled description in the Proceedings of 
the Philomathematical Society of Pfennighalbpfennig (circulation 533), 
it passes into well-deserved oblivion. Unfortunately, under the 
Strickland Code of strict priority, Herr Doofus’s name, if pub- 
lished first, becomes the official moniker of the species — so long 
as Doofus didn’t break any rule in writing his report. The compe- 
tence and usefulness of his work have no bearing on the decision. 
The resulting situation is perversely curious. What other field 
defines its major activity by the work of the least skilled? As 
Charles Michener, our greatest taxonomist of bees, once wrote: 
“In other sciences the work of incompetents is merely ignored; in 
taxonomy, because of priority, it is preserved.” 

If the Sterling/Doofus ratio were high, priority might pose few 
problems in practice. Unfortunately, the domain of Doofuses 
forms a veritable army, issuing cannonade after cannonade of 
publications filled with new names destined for oblivion but tech- 
nically constituted in correct form. Since every profession has its 
petty legalists, its boosters of tidiness and procedure over con- 
tent, natural history sank into a mire of unproductive pedantry 
that, in Ernst Mayr’s words, “deflected taxonomists from biologi- 
cal research into bibliographic archeology.” Legions of techno- 
crats delighted in searching obscure and forgotten publications 
for an earlier name that could displace some long-accepted and 
stable usage. Acrimonious arguments proliferated, for Doofus’s 
inadequate descriptions rarely permitted an unambiguous identi- 
fication of his earlier name with any well-defined species. Thus, a 


rule introduced to establish stability against capricious change 
for appropriateness sowed even greater disruption by forcing the 
abandonment of accepted names for forgotten predecessors. 

3. Plenary Powers. The abuses of Herr Doofus and his ilk in- 
duced a virtual rebellion among natural historians. A poll of 
Scandinavian zoologists, taken in 1911, yielded 2 in favor and 
120 opposed to strict priority. All intelligent administrators know 
that the key to a humane and successful bureaucracy lies in cre- 
ative use of the word ordinarily. Strict rules of procedure are ordi- 
narily inviolable — unless a damned good reason for disobedience 
arises, and then flexibility permits humane and rational excep- 
tions. The Plenary Powers Rule, adopted in Monaco in 1913 to 
stem the revolt against strict priority, is a codification of the esti- 
mable principle of ordinarily. It provided, as quoted early in this 
essay, that the first designation shall prevail, unless a later name 
has been so widely accepted that its suppression in favor of a 
forgotten predecessor would sow confusion and instability. 

Such exceptions to strict priority cannot be asserted by in- 
dividuals but must be officially granted by the International Com- 
mission of Zoological Nomenclature, acting under its plenary 
powers. The procedure is somewhat cumbersome and demands a 
certain investment of time and paperwork, but the plenary pow- 
ers rule has served us well and has finally achieved stability by 
locating the fulcrum between strict priority and proper excep- 
tion. To suppress an earlier name under the plenary powers, a 
taxonomist must submit a formal application and justification to 
the International Commission (a body of some thirty professional 
zoologists). The commission then publishes the case, invites 
commentary from taxonomists throughout the world, considers 
the initial appeal with all elicited support and rebuttal, and makes 
a decision by majority vote. 

The system has worked well, as two cases may illustrate. The 
protozoan species Tetrahymena pynforme has long been a staple for 
biological research, particularly on the physiology of single- 
celled organisms. John Corliss counted more than 1,500 papers 
published over a 27-year span — all using this name. However, at 
least ten technically valid names, entirely forgotten and unused, 
predate the first publication of Tetrahymena. No purpose would be 
served by resurrecting any of these earlier designations and sup- 


pressing the universally accepted Tetrahymena. Corliss’s petition 
to the commission was accepted without protest, and Tetrahymena 
has been officially accepted under the plenary powers. 

One of my favorite names recently had a much closer brush 
with official extinction. The generic names of many animals are 
the same as their common designation: the gorilla is Gorilla; the 
rat, Rattus. But I know only one case of a vernacular name identi- 
cal with both generic and specific parts of the technical Latin. The 
boa constrictor is (but almost wasn’t) Boa constrictor, and it would 
be a damned shame if we lost this lovely consonance. Neverthe- 
less, in 1976, Boa constrictor barely survived one of the closest 
contests ever brought before the commission, as thirteen mem- 
bers voted to suppress this grand name in favor of Boa canina, 
while fifteen noble nays stood firm and saved the day. The details 
are numerous and not relevant to this essay. Briefly, in the found- 
ing document of 1758, Linnaeus placed nine species in his genus 
Boa, including canina and constrictor. As later zoologists divided 
Linnaeus’s overly broad concept of Boa into several genera, a key 
question inevitably arose: Which of Linnaeus’s original species 
should become the “type” (or name bearer) for the restricted 
version of Boa, and which should be assigned to other genera? 
Many professional herpetologists had accepted canina as the best 
name bearer (and assigned constrictor to another genus); but a 
world of both technical and common usage, from textbooks to 
zoo labels to horror films, recognized Boa constrictor. The com- 
mission narrowly opted, in a tight squeeze (sorry, I couldn’t resist 
that one), for the name we all know and love. Ernst Mayr, in 
casting his decisive vote, cited the virtue of stability in validating 
common usage — the basis for the plenary powers decision in the 
first place: 

I think here is clearly a case where stability is best served by 
following usage in the general zoological literature. I have 
asked numerous zoologists “what species does the genus 
Boa call to your mind?” and they all said immediately “ con- 
strictor . ”... Making constrictor the type of Boa will remove all 
ambiguity from the literature. 

These debates often strike nonprofessionals as a bit ridicu- 
lous — a sign, perhaps, that taxonomy is more wordplay than sci- 


ence. After all, science studies the external world (through the 
dark glass of our prejudices and perceptions to be sure). Ques- 
tions of first publication versus common usage raise no issues 
about the animals “out there,” and only concern human conven- 
tions for naming. But this is the point, not the problem. These 
are debates about names, not things — and the arbitrary criteria of 
human decision-making, not boundaries imposed by the external 
world, apply to our resolutions. The aim of these debates (al- 
though not always, alas, the outcome) is to cut through the verbi- 
age, reach a stable and practical decision, and move on to the 
world of things. 

Which leads — did you think that I had forgotten my opening 
paragraph? — back to philately. The United States government, 
jumping on the greatest bandwagon since the hula hoop, recently 
issued four striking stamps bearing pictures of dinosaurs — and 
labeled Tyrannosaurus , Stegosaurus , Pteranodon, and Brontosaurus. 

Thrusting itself, with all the zeal of a convert, into the heart of 
commercial hype, the U.S. Post Office seems committed to shed- 
ding its image for stodginess in one fell, crass swoop. Its small 
brochure, announcing October as “national stamp collecting 
month,” manages to sponsor a contest, establish a tie-in both 
with T-shirts and a videocassette for The Land Before Time, and 
offer a dinosaur “discovery kit” (a $9.95 value for just $3.95; 
“Valid while supplies last. Better hurry!”). You will, in this con- 
text, probably not be surprised to learn that the stamps were 
officially launched on October 1, 1989, in Orlando, Florida, at 
Disney World. 

Amidst this maelstrom of marketing, the Post Office also en- 
gendered quite a brouhaha about the supposed subject of one 
stamp — a debate given such prominence in the press that much 
of the public (at least judging from my voluminous mail) now 
thinks that an issue of great scientific importance has been raised 
to the detriment and shame of an institution otherwise making a 
worthy step to modernity. (We must leave this question for an- 
other time, but I confess great uneasiness about such approba- 
tion. I appreciate the argument that T-shirts and videos heighten 
awareness and expose aspects of science to millions of kids other- 
wise unreached. I understand why many will accept the forceful 
spigot of hype, accompanied by the watering-down of content — 
all in the interest of extending contact. But the argument works 


only if, having made contact, we can then woo these kids to a 
deeper intellectual interest and commitment. Unfortunately, we 
are often all too ready to compromise. We hear the blandish- 
ments: Dumb it down; hype it up. But go too far and you cannot 
turn back; you lose your own soul by dripping degrees. The space 
for wooing disappears down the maw of commercialism. Too 
many wise people, from Shakespeare to my grandmother, have 
said that dignity is the only bit of our being that cannot be put up 
for sale.) 

This growing controversy even reached the august editorial 
pages of the New York Times (October 11, 1989), and their de- 
scription serves as a fine epitome of the supposed mess: 

The Postal Service has taken heavy flak for mislabeling its 
new 25-cent dinosaur stamp, a drawing of a pair of dino- 
saurs captioned “Brontosaurus. " Furious purists point out 
that the “brontosaurus” is now properly called “apatosau- 
rus.” They accuse the stamp’s authors of fostering scientific 
illiteracy, and want the stamps recalled. 

Brontosaurus versus Apatosaurus. Which is right? How important 
is this issue? How does it rank amidst a host of other controver- 
sies surrounding this and other dinosaurs: What head belongs on 
this dinosaur (whether it be called Brontosaurus or Apatosaurus ); 
were these large dinosaurs warm-blooded; why did they become 
extinct? The press often does a good job of reporting basic facts 
of a dispute, but fails miserably in supplying the context that 
would allow a judgment about importance. I have tried, in the 
first part of this essay, to supply the necessary context for grasp- 
ing Brontosaurus versus Apatosaurus. 1 regret to report, and shall 
now document, that the issue could hardly be more trivial — for 
the dispute is only about names, not about things. The empirical 
question was settled to everyone’s satisfaction in 1903. To under- 
stand the argument about names, we must know the rules of tax- 
onomy and something about the history of debate on the 
principle of priority. But the exposure of context for Brontosaurus 
versus Apatosaurus does provide an interesting story in itself and 
does raise important issues about the public presentation of sci- 
ence — and thus do I hope to snatch victory (or at least interest) 
from thejaws of defeat (or triviality). 


Brontosaurus versus Apatosaurus is a direct legacy of the most 
celebrated feud in the history of vertebrate paleontology — Cope 
versus Marsh. As E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh vied for the glory 
of finding spectacular dinosaurs and mammals in the Ameri- 
can West, they fell into a pattern of rush and superficiality born 
of their intense competition and mutual dislike. Both wanted to 
bag as many names as possible, so they published too quickly, 
often with inadequate descriptions, careless study, and poor 
illustrations. In this unseemly rush, they frequently gave names 
to fragmentary material that could not be well characterized 
and sometimes described the same creature twice by failing to 
make proper distinctions among the fragments. (For a good his- 
tory of this issue, see D. S. Berman and J. S. McIntosh, 1978. 
These authors point out that both Cope and Marsh often de- 
scribed and officially named a species when only a few bones had 
been excavated and most of the skeleton remained in the 

In 1877, in a typically rushed note, O. C. Marsh named and 
described Apatosaurus ajax in two paragraphs without illustrations 
(“Notice of New Dinosaurian Reptiles from the Jurassic Forma- 
tion,” American Journal of Science, 1877). Although he noted that 
this “gigantic dinosaur ... is represented in the Yale Museum by 
a nearly complete skeleton in excellent preservation,” Marsh de- 
scribed only the vertebral column. In 1879, he published another 
page of information and presented the first sketchy illustra- 
tions — of pelvis, shoulder blade, and a few vertebrae (“Principal 
Characters of American Jurassic Dinosaurs, Part II,” American 
Journal of Science, 1879). He also took this opportunity to pour 
some vitriol upon Mr. Cope, claiming that Cope had misnamed 
and misdescribed several forms in his haste. “Conclusions based 
on such work,” Marsh asserts, “will naturally be received with 
distrust by anatomists.” 

In another 1879 article, Marsh introduced the genus Bron- 
tosaurus, with two paragraphs (even shorter than those initially 
devoted to Apatosaurus) , no illustrations, and just a few comments 
on the pelvis and vertebrae. He did estimate the length of his new 
beast at seventy to eighty feet, in comparison with some fifty feet 
for Apatosaurus (“Notice of New Jurassic Reptiles,” American Jour- 
nal of Science, 1879). 

Marsh considered Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus as distinct but 



Marsh’s famous illustration of the complete skeleton of Brontosaurus. 


closely related genera within the larger family of sauropod dino- 
saurs. Brontosaurus soon became everyone’s typical sauropod — 
indeed the canonical herbivorous dinosaur of popular con- 
sciousness, from the Sinclair logo to Walt Disney’s Fantasia — for 
a simple and obvious reason. Marsh's Brontosaurus skeleton, from 
the most famous of all dinosaur localities at Como Bluff Quarry 
10, Wyoming, remains to this day “one of the most complete 
sauropod skeletons ever found” (quoted from Berman and McIn- 
tosh, cited previously). Marsh mounted the skeleton at Yale and 
often published his spectacular reconstruction of the entire ani- 
mal. (Apatosaurus, meanwhile, remained a pelvis and some verte- 
brae.) In his great summary work, The Dinosaurs of North America, 
Marsh wrote (1896): “The best-known genus of the Atlanto- 
sauridae is Brontosaurus, described by the writer in 1879, the type 
specimen being a nearly entire skeleton, by far the most complete 
of any of the Sauropoda yet discovered.” Brontosaurus also be- 
came the source of the old stereotype, now so strongly chal- 
lenged, of slow, stupid, lumbering dinosaurs. Marsh wrote in 


1883, when presenting his full reconstruction of Brontosaurus for 
the first time: 

A careful estimate of the size of Brontosaurus, as here re- 
stored, shows that when living the animal must have 
weighed more than twenty tons. The very small head and 
brain, and slender neural cord, indicate a stupid, slow-mov- 
ing reptile. The beast was wholly without offensive or de- 
fensive weapons, or dermal armature. In habits. Brontosaurus 
was more or less amphibious, and its food was probably 
aquatic plants or other succulent vegetation. 

In 1903, Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum in Chicago re- 
studied Marsh’s sauropods. Paleontologists had realized by then 
that Marsh had been overgenerous in his designation of species 
(a “splitter” in our jargon), and that many of his names would 
have to be consolidated. When Riggs restudied Apatosaurus and 
Brontosaurus, he recognized them as two versions of the same 
creature, with Apatosaurus as a more juvenile specimen. No big 
deal; it happens all the time. Riggs rolled the two genera into one 
in a single paragraph: 


The genus Brontosaurus was based chiefly upon ihe structure 
of the scapula and the presence of five vertebrae in the sa- 
crum. After examining the type specimens of these genera, 
and making a careful study of the unusually well-preserved 
specimen described in this paper, the writer is convinced 
that the Apatosaur specimen is merely a young animal of the 
form represented in the adult by the Brontosaur specimen. 

... In view of these facts the two genera may be regarded as 
synonymous. As the term "Apatosaurus" has priority, "Bron- 
tosaurus" will be regarded as a synonym. 

In 1903, ten years before the plenary powers decision, strict 
priority ruled in zoological nomenclature. Thus, Riggs had no 
choice but to sink the later name, Brontosaurus, once he had de- 
cided that Marsh’s earlier name, Apatosaurus, represented the 
same animal. But then I rather doubt that Riggs would have gone 
to bat for Brontosaurus even if he could have submitted a case on 
its behalf. After all. Brontosaurus was not yet an icon of pop culture 
in 1903 — no Sinclair logo, no Alley-Oop, no Fantasia, no Land 
Before Time. Neither name had captured public or scientific fancy, 
and Riggs probably didn't lament the demise of Brontosaurus. 

No one has ever seriously challenged Riggs’s conclusion, and 
professionals have always accepted his synonymy. But Publica- 
tion 82 of the “Geological Series of the Field Columbian Mu- 
seum’’ for 1903 — the reference for Riggs’s article — never gained 
much popular currency. The name Brontosaurus, still affixed to 
skeletons in museums thoughout the world, still perpetuated in 
countless popular and semi-technical books about nature, never 
lost its luster, despite its technical limbo. Anyone could have ap- 
plied to the commission for suppression of Apatosaurus under the 
plenary powers in recognition of the widespread popularity and 
stability of Brontosaurus. I suspect that such an application would 
have succeeded. But no one bothered, and a good name remains 
in limbo. (I also wish that someone had fought for suppression of 
the unattractive and inappropriate name Hyracothernim in favor of 
the lovely but later Eohippus, also coined by Marsh. But again, no 
one did.) 

I’m afraid there’s not much more to this story — not nearly the 
issue hyped by your newspapers as the Great Stamp Flap. No 
argument of fact arises at all, just a question of names, settled in 


1903, but never transferred to a general culture that continues to 
learn and favor the technically invalid name Brontosaurus. But the 
story does illustrate something troubling about the presentation 
of science in popular media. The world of USA Today is a realm of 
instant fact and no analysis. Hundreds of bits come at us in pieces 
never lasting more than a few seconds — for the dumb-downers 
tell us that average Americans can’t assimilate anything more 
complex or pay attention to anything longer. 

This oddly “democratic” procedure makes all bits equal — the 
cat who fell off a roof in Topeka (and lived) gets the same space as 
the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Equality is a magnificent 
system for human rights and morality in general, but not for the 
evaluation of information. We are bombarded with too much in 
our inordinately complex world; if we cannot sort the trivial from 
the profound, we are lost in terminal overload. The criteria for 
sorting must involve context and theory — the larger perspective 
that a good education provides. 

In the current dinosaur craze without context, all bits are 
mined for their superficial news value as items in themselves — a 
lamentable tendency abetted by the “trivial pursuit” one-upman- 
ship that confers status on people who know (and flaunt) the 
most bits. (If you play this dangerous game in real life, remember 
that ignorance of context is the surest mark of a phony. If you 
approach me in wild lament, claiming that our postal service has 
mocked the deepest truth of paleontology, I will know that you 
have only skimmed the surface of my field.) 

Consider the four items mentioned earlier in this essay. They 
are often presented in USA Today style as equal factoids. But with 
a context to sort the trivial from the profound, we may recognize 
some as statements about words, others as entries to the most 
general questions we can ask about the history of life. Apatosaurus 
versus Brontosaurus is a legalistic quibble about words and rules of 
naming. Leave the Post Office alone. They take enough flak 
(much justified of course) as it is. The proper head for Apatosaurus 
is an interesting empirical issue, but of little moment beyond the 
sauropods. Marsh found no skull associated with either his 
Apatosaurus or his Brontosaurus skeleton. He guessed wrong and 
mounted the head of another sauropod genus called Camarosau- 
rus. Apatosaurus actually bore a head much more like that of the 
different genus Diplodocus. The head issue (Camarosaurus- like ver- 


sus Diplodocus- like) and the name issue ( Apatosaurus versus Bron- 
tosaurus) are entirely separate questions, although the press has 
confused and conflated them. 

The question of warm-bloodedness (quite unresolved at the 
moment) is more general still, as it affects our basic concepts of 
dinosaur physiology and efficiency. The issue of extinction is the 
broadest of all — for basic patterns of fife’s history are set by dif- 
ferential survival of groups through episodes of mass dying. We 
are here today, arguing about empty issues like Apatosaurus versus 
Brontosaurus, because mammals got through the great Cretaceous 
extinction, while dinosaurs did not. 

I hate to be a shill for the Post Office, but I think that they made 
the right decision this time. Responding to the great Apatosaurus 
flap. Postal Bulletin Number 21744 proclaimed: “Although now 
recognized by the scientific community as Apatosaurus, the name 
Brontosaurus was used for the stamp because it is more familiar to 
the general population. Similarly, the term “dinosaur” has been 
used generically to describe all the animals, even though the 
Pteranodon was a flying reptile.” Touche and right on; no one 
bitched about Pteranodon, and that’s a real error. 

The Post Office has been more right than the complainers, for 
Uncle Sam has worked in the spirit of the plenary powers rule. 
Names fixed in popular usage may be validated even if older 
designations have technical priority. But now . . . Oh Lord, why 
didn’t I see it before! Now I suddenly grasp the secret thread 
behind this overt debate! It’s a plot, a dastardly plot sponsored by 
the apatophiles — that covert society long dedicated to gaining 
support for Marsh’s original name against a potential appeal to 
the plenary powers. They never had a prayer before. Whatever 
noise they made, whatever assassinations they attempted, they 
could never get anyone to pay attention, never disturb the tran- 
quillity and general acceptance of Brontosaurus. But now that the 
Post Office has officially adopted Brontosaurus, they have found 
their opening. Now enough people know about Apatosaurus for 
the first time. Now an appeal to the plenary powers would not 
lead to the validation of Brontosaurus, for Apatosaurus has gained 
precious currency. They have won; we brontophiles have been 

Apatosaurus means “deceptive lizard”; Brontosaurus means 
“thunder lizard” — a far, far better name (but appropriateness, 


alas, as we have seen, counts for nothing). They have deceived us; 
we brontophiles have been outmaneuvered. Oh well, gracious- 
ness in defeat before all (every bit as important as dignity, if not 
an aspect thereof). I retreat, not with a bang of thunder, but with 
a whimper of hope that rectification may someday arise from the 
ashes of my stamp album. 

The Dinosaur Rip-off 

we love occasional reversals of established order, 
both to defuse the tension of inequity and to infuse a bit of variety 
into our lives. Consider the medieval feast of fools (where slaves 
could be masters, in jest and only for a moment), Sadie Hawkins 
Day, and the genre of quiz that supplies the answer and asks a 
contestant to reconstruct the question. 1 begin this essay in such a 
spirit by giving my answer to a question that has surpassed all 
others (except, perhaps, “Where is human evolution going?”) in 
my catalogue of inquiries from people who love natural history. 
My answer, unfortunately, must be: “Damned if I know” — which 
won’t help you much in trying to guess the question. So I’ll reveal 
the question without further ado: “What’s behind the great dino- 
saur mania that’s been sweeping the country during the past few 

Readers will scarcely need my words to document the phenom- 
enon, for we are all surrounded by dinosaur tote bags, lunch 
boxes, pens and pencils, underpants, ties, and T-shirts that say 
“bossosaurus” or “secretaryosaurus,” as the case may be. You 
can buy dinosaur-egg soap to encourage your kids to take a bath, 
a rocking stegosaurus for indoor recreation (a mere 800 bucks 
from F.A.O. Schwarz), a brontosaurus bank to encourage thrift, 
or a dinosaur growth chart to hang on the wall and measure your 
tyke’s progress toward the N.B.A. In Key West, where dinosaurs 
have edged out flamingos as icons of kitsch, I even saw dinosaur 
toilet paper with a different creature on each perforated seg- 
ment — providing quite a sense of power, I suppose, when used 
for its customary purpose. (T his reminded me of the best attempt 



I ever encountered for defusing the Irish situation. I once stayed 
in a small motel in Eire where the bathrooms had two rolls of 
toilet paper — one green, the other orange.) 

I offer no definitive answer to the cause of this mania, but I can 
at least document a fact strongly relevant to the solution. Perhaps 
dinosaur mania is intrinsic and endemic, a necessary and perma- 
nent fact of life (once the fossils had been discovered and prop- 
erly characterized); perhaps dinosaurs act as the trigger for a 
deepjungian archetype of the soul; perhaps they rank as incarna- 
tions of primal fears and fascinations, programmed into our 
brains as the dragons of Eden. But these highfalutin suggestions 
cannot suffice for the simple reason that dinosaurs have been well 
documented throughout our century, while few people granted 
them more than passing notice before the recent craze hit. 

I can testify to the previous status of dinosaurs among the ar- 
cana of our culture, for I was a kiddie dinosaur nut in the late 
1940s when nobody gave a damn. I fell in love with the great 
skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History and then, 
with all the passion of youth, sought collateral material with thor- 
oughness and avidity. I would pounce on any reinforcement of 
my greatest interest — a Sinclair Oil logo or a hokey concrete 
tyrannosaur bestriding (like a colossus) Hole 15 at the local mini- 
ature golf course. There sure wasn’t much to find — a few over- 
priced brass figures and a book or two by Roy Chapman Andrews 
and Ned Colbert, all hard to get anywhere outside the Museum 
shop. Representations in pop culture were equally scarce, rang- 
ing little beyond King Kong versus the pteranodon and Alley 
Oop riding a brontosaurus. 

One story will indicate both the frustration of a young adept in 
a world of ignorance and the depth of that ignorance itself. At age 
nine or so, in the Catskills at one of those innumerable summer 
camps with an Indian name, I got into a furious argument with a 
bunkmate over the old issue of whether humans and dinosaurs 
ever inhabited the earth together. We agreed — bad, bad mis- 
take — to abide by the judgment of the first adult claiming to know 
the answer, and we bet the camp currency, a chocolate bar, on the 
outcome. We asked all the counselors and staff, but none had 
ever heard of a brontosaurus. At parents’ weekend, his came and 
mine didn’t. We asked his father, who assured us that of course 
dinosaurs and people lived together; just look at Alley Oop. I 


paid — and seethed — and still seethe. This could not happen 
today. Anyone — a few “scientific creationists” excepted — would 
both know the answer and give you the latest rundown on theo- 
ries for the extinction of dinosaurs.* 

All this I tell for humor, but a part of the story isn’t so funny. 
Kiddie culture can be cruel and fiercely anti-intellectual. I sur- 
vived because I wasn’t hopeless at punchball, and I won some 
respect for my knowledge of baseball stats. But any kid with a 
passionate interest in science was a wonk, a square, a dweeb, a 
doofus, or a geek (I don’t remember what word held sway at the 
time, but one item in that particular litany of cruelty is always in 
vogue). I was taunted by many classmates as peculiar. I was called 
“fossil face” on the playground. It hurt. 

I once asked my colleague Shep White, a leading child psychol- 
ogist, why kids were so interested in dinosaurs. He gave an an- 
swer both elegant and succinct: “Big, fierce, and extinct.” I love 
this response, but it can’t resolve the question that prompted this 
essay. Dinosaurs were also big, fierce, and extinct twenty years 
ago, but few kids or adults gave a damn about them. And so I 
return to the original question: What started the current dino- 
saur craze? 

The optimistic answer for any intellectual must be that public 
taste follows scientific discovery. The past twenty years have been 
a heyday for new findings and fundamental revisions in our view 
of dinosaurs. The drab, lumbering, slow-witted, inefficient beasts 
of old interpretations have been replaced with smooth, sleek, 
colorful, well-oiled, and at least adequately intelligent revised 
versions. The changes have been most significant in three sub- 
jects: anatomy, behavior, and extinction. All three have provided 
a more congenial and more interesting perspective on dinosaurs. 
For anatomy, a herd of brontosauruses charging through the des- 
ert inspires more awe than a few behemoths so encumbered by 
their own weight that they must live in ponds (see the classic 
illustration on the dust jacket of this book). For behavior, the 

*1 was too optimistic. Never overestimate the depth of our anti-intellectual tradi- 
tions! A week after I published this essay, results of a comprehensive survey 
showed that about 30 percent of American adults accept the probable contem- 
poraneity of humans and dinosaurs. Still, our times are better than before. Sev- 
enty percent of that camp could have answered our inquiry before parental 


images of the newly christened Maiasauria, the good mother liz- 
ard, brooding her young, or a herd of migrating ornithopods, 
with vulnerable juveniles in the center and strong adults at the 
peripheries, inspire more sympathy than a dumb stegosaur laying 
her eggs and immediately abandoning them by instinct and igno- 
rance. For extinction, crashing comets and global dust clouds 
surely inspire more attention than gradually changing sea levels 
or solar outputs. 

I wish that I could locate the current craze in these exciting 
intellectual developments. But a moment’s thought must con- 
vince anyone that this good reason cannot provide the right an- 
swer. Dinosaurs might not have been quite so jazzy and sexy 
twenty years ago, but the brontosaurs weren’t any smaller back 
then, the tyrannosaurs were just as fierce, and the whole clan was 
every bit as extinct (my camp friend’s father notwithstanding). 
\ ou may accept or reject Shep White's three categories, but 
choose any alternate criteria and dinosaurs surely had the capac- 
ity to inspire a craze at any time — twenty years ago as well as 
today. (At least two mini-crazes of earlier years — in England after 
Waterhouse Hawkins displayed his life-sized models at the Crys- 
tal Palace in the 1850s, and in America after Sinclair promoted a 
dinosaur exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1 939 — illustrate 
this permanent potential.) We must conclude, I think, that dino- 
saurs have never lacked the seeds of appeal, that the missing 
ingredient must be adequate publicity, and that the key to “why 
now?” resides in promotion, not new knowledge. 

I must therefore assume that the solution lies in that great and 
dubious driving force of American society — marketing. At some 
definable point, some smart entrepreneur recognized an enor- 
mous and largely unexploited potential for profit. What craze is 
any diflerent? Did goldfish reach an optimal size and tastiness for 
swallowing in the early 1940s? Did a breakthrough in yo-yo tech- 
nology spawn the great passion that swept the streets of New 
York in my youth? Did hula hoops fit some particular social niche 
and need uniquely confined to a few months during the 1950s? 

I don’t doubt that a few more general factors may form part of 
the story. Perhaps the initial entrepreneurs developed their own 
interest and insight by reading about new discoveries. Perhaps 
the vast expansion of museum gift shops — a dubious trend (in my 
view), with more to lament in skewed priorities than to praise in 


heightened availability of worthy paraphernalia — gave an essen- 
tial boost in providing an initial arena for sales. Still, most crazes 
get started for odd and unpredictable reasons and then propa- 
gate by a kind of mass intoxication and social conformity. If I am 
right in arguing that the current dinosaur craze could have occur- 
red long ago and owes both its origin and initial spread to a 
marketing opportunity seized by a few diligent entrepreneurs 
(with later diffusion by odd mechanisms of crowd psychology that 
engender chain reactions beyond a critical mass), then the source 
of this phenomenon may not be a social trend or a new discovery, 
but the cleverness of a person or persons unknown (with a prod- 
uct or products unrecognized). As this craze is no minor item in 
twentieth-century American cultural history, I would love to 
identify the instigators and the insights. If anyone knows, please 
tell me. 

I do confess to some cynical dubiety about the inundation of 
kiddie culture with dinosaurs in every cute, furry, and profitable 
venue that any marketing agent can devise. I don’t, of course, 
advocate a return to the ignorance and unavailability of informa- 
tion during my youth, but a dinosaur on every T-shirt and milk 
carton does foreclose any sense of mystery or joy of discovery — 
and certain forms of marketing do inexorably lead to trivializa- 
tion. Interest in dinosaurs becomes one of those ephemeral 
episodes — somewhere between policeman and fireman — in the 
canonical sequence of childhood interests. Something to burn 
brightly in its appointed season and then, all too often, to die — 
utterly and without memory. 

As intellectuals, we acknowledge and accept a minority status 
in our culture (since hope, virtue, and reality rarely coincide). We 
therefore know that we must seize our advantages by noting pop- 
ular trends and trying to divert some of their energy into rivulets 
that might benefit learning and education. The dinosaur craze 
should be a blessing for us, since the source material is a rip-off of 
our efforts — the labor of paleontologists, the great skeletons 
mounted in our museums. Indeed, we have done well — damned 
well, as things go. Lurking in and around the book covers and 
shopping bags are a pretty fair number of mighty good books, 
films, puzzles, games, and other items of — dare I say it — decent 
intellectual and educational content. 

It is now time to segue, via a respectable transition, into the 


second part of this essay. (But before we do, and while I’m throw- 
ing out requests for enlightenment, can anyone tell me how this 
fairly obscure Italian term from my musical education managed 
its recent entry into trendy American speech?*) 

We all acknowledge the sorry state of primary and secondary 
education in America, both by contrast with the successes of 
other nations and by any absolute standard of educational need 
in an increasingly complex world. We also recognize that the 
crisis is particularly acute for the teaching of science. Well, being 
of an optimistic nature, I survey the dinosaur craze and wonder 
why science suffers so badly within our schools. The dinosaur 
craze has generated, amidst a supersaurus-sized pile of kitsch and 
crap, a remarkable range of worthy material that kids seem to like 
and use. Kids love science so long as fine teaching and good 
material grace the presentation. If the dinosaur craze of pop cul- 
ture has been adequately subverted for educational ends, why 
can’t we capitalize on this benevolent spin-off? Why can’t we sus- 
tain the interest, rather than letting it wither like the flower of 
grass, as soon as a child moves on to his next stage? Why can’t we 
infuse some of this excitement into our schools and use it to 
boost and expand interest in all of science? Think of the aggre- 
gate mental power vested in 10 million five-year-olds, each with 
an average of twenty monstrous Latin dinosaur names committed 
to memory with the effortless joy and awesome talent of human 
beings at the height of their powers for rote learning. Can’t we 
transfer this skill to all the other domains — arithmetic, spelling, 
and foreign languages, in particular — that benefit so greatly from 
rote learning in primary school years? (Let no adult disparage the 
value of rote because we lose both the ability and the joy in later 

Why is the teaching of science in such trouble in our nation’s 
public schools? Why is the shortage of science teachers so des- 
perate that hundreds of high schools have dropped physics en- 
tirely, while about half of all science courses still on the books are 
now being taught by people without formal training in science? 
To understand this lamentable situation, we must first dispel the 
silly and hurtful myth that science is simply too hard for pre- 
adults. (Supporters of this excuse argue that we succeeded in the 

*See the postscript to this essay for an interesting reaction to this appeal. 


past only because science was much simpler before the great ex- 
plosion of modern knowledge.) 

This claim cannot be sustained for two basic reasons. First, 
science uses and requires no special mental equipment beyond 
the scope of a standard school curriculum. The subject matter 
may be different but the cerebral tools are common to all learn- 
ing. Science probes the factual state of the world; religion and 
ethics deal with moral reasoning; art and literature treat aesthetic 
and social judgment. 

Second, we may put aside all abstract arguments and rely on 
the empirical fact that other nations have had great success in 
science education. If their kids can handle the material, so can 
ours, with proper motivation and instruction. Korea has made 
great strides in education, particularly in mathematics and the 
physical sciences. And if you attempt to take refuge in the cruel 
and fallacious argument that Orientals are genetically built to 
excel in such subjects, I simply point out that European nations, 
filled with people more like most of us, have been just as success- 
ful. The sciences are well taught and appreciated in the Soviet 
Union, for example, where the major popular bookstores on Le- 
ninsky Prospekt are stocked with technical books both browsed 
and purchased in large numbers. Moreover, we proved the point 
to ourselves in the late 1950s, when the Soviet Sputnik inspired 
cold war fears of Russian technological takeover, and we re- 
sponded, for once, with adequate cash, expertise, and enthusi- 
asm, by launching a major effort to improve secondary education 
in science. But that effort, begun for the wrong reasons, soon 
petered out into renewed mediocrity (graced, as always, with pin- 
points of excellence here and there, whenever a great teacher and 
adequate resources coincide). 

We live in a profoundly nonintellectual culture, made all the 
worse by a passive hedonism abetted by the spread of wealth and 
its dissipation into countless electronic devices that impart the 
latest in entertainment and supposed information — all in short 
(and loud) doses of “easy listening.” The kiddie culture, or play- 
ground, version of this nonintellectualism can be even more stri- 
dent and more one-dimensional, but the fault must lie entirely 
with adults — for our kids are only enhancing a role model read all 
too clearly. 

I’m beginning to sound like an aging Miniver Cheevy, or like 


the chief reprobate on Ko-Ko’s little list “of society offenders 
who might well be underground” — and he means dead and bur- 
ied, not romantically in opposition: “the idiot who praises with 
enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this and every country but his 
own.” I want to make an opposite and curiously optimistic point 
about our current mores: We are a profoundly nonintellectural 
culture, but we are not committed to this attitude; in fact, we are 
scarcely committed to anything. We may be the most labile cul- 
ture in all history, capable of rapid and massive shifts of prevail- 
ing opinions, all imposed from above by concerted media effort. 
Passivity and nonintellectual judgment are the greatest spurs to 
such lability. Everything comes to us in fifteen-second sound 
bites and photo opportunities. All possibility for ambiguity — the 
most precious trait of any adequate analysis — is erased. He wins 
who looks best or shouts loudest. We are so fearful of making 
judgments ourselves that we must wait until the TV commenta- 
tors have spoken before deciding whether Bush or Dukakis won 
the debate. 

We are therefore maximally subject to imposition from above. 
Nonetheless, this dangerous trait can be subverted for good. A 
few years ago, in the wake of an unparalleled media blitz, drugs 
rose from insignificance to a strong number one on the list of 
serious American problems in that most mercurial court of public 
opinion as revealed by polling. Surely we can provoke the same 
immediate recognition for poor education. Talk about “wasted 
minds.” Which cause would you pick as the greater enemy, quan- 
titatively speaking, in America: crack or lousy education abetted 
by conformity and peer pressure in an anti-intellectual culture? 

We live in a capitalist economy, and I have no particular objec- 
tion to honorable self-interest. We cannot hope to make the 
needed, drastic improvement in primary and secondary educa- 
tion without a dramatic restructuring of salaries. In my opinion, 
you cannot pay a good teacher enough money to recompense the 
value of talent applied to the education of young children. I teach 
an hour or two a day to tolerably well-behaved near-adults — and 
come home exhausted. By what possible argument are my ser- 
vices worth more in salary than those of a secondary-school 
teacher with six classes a day, little prestige, less support, massive 
problems of discipline, and a fundamental role in shaping minds. 
(In comparison, I only tinker with intellects already largely 


formed.) Why are salaries so low, and attendant prestige so lim- 
ited, for the most important job in America? How can our priori- 
ties be so skewed that when we wish to raise the status of science 
teachers, we take the media route and try to place a member of 
the profession into orbit (with disastrous consequences, as it hap- 
pened), rather than boosting salaries on earth? (The crisis in sci- 
ence teaching stems directly from this crucial issue of 
compensation. Science graduates can begin in a variety of indus- 
trial jobs at twice the salary of almost any teaching position; po- 
tential teachers in the arts and humanities often lack these 
well-paid alternatives and enter the public schools faute de mieux . ) 

We are now at a crux of opportunity, and the situation may not 
persist if we fail to exploit it. If I were king, I would believe Gor- 
bachev, realize that the cold war is a happenstance of history — 
not a necessary and permanent state of world politics — make 
some agreements, slash the military budget, and use just a frac- 
tion of the savings to double the salary of every teacher in Ameri- 
can public schools. I suspect that a shift in prestige, and the 
consequent attractiveness of teaching to those with excellence 
and talent, would follow. 

I don’t regard these suggestions as pipe dreams, but having 
been born before yesterday, 1 don’t expect their immediate im- 
plementation either. I also acknowledge, of course, that reforms 
are not imposed from above without vast and coordinated efforts 
of lobbying and pressuring from below. Thus, as we work toward 
a larger and more coordinated solution, and as a small contribu- 
tion to the people’s lobby, could we not immediately subvert 
more of the dinosaur craze from crass commercialism to educa- 
tional value? 

Dinosaur names can become the model for rote learning. Dino- 
saur facts and figures can inspire visceral interest and lead to 
greater wonder about science. Dinosaur theories and reconstruc- 
tions can illustrate the rudiments of scientific reasoning. But I’d 
like to end with a more modest suggestion. Nothing makes me 
sadder than the peer pressure that enforces conformity and 
erases wonder. Countless Americans have been permanently de- 
prived of the joys of singing because a thoughtless teacher once 
told them not to sing, but only to mouth the words at the school 
assembly because they were “off-key.” Once told, twice shy and 
perpetually fearful. Countless others had the light of intellectual 


wonder extinguished because a thoughtless and swaggering fel- 
low student called them nerds on the playground. Don’t point to 
the obsessives — I was one — who will persist and succeed despite 
these petty cruelties of youth. For each of us, a hundred are lost — 
more timid and fearful, but just as capable. We must rage against 
the dying of the light — and although Dylan Thomas spoke of 
bodily death in his famous line, we may also apply his words to 
the extinction of wonder in the mind, by pressures of conformity 
in an anti-intellectual culture. 

The New York Times, in an article on science education in Korea, 
interviewed a nine-year-old girl and inquired after her personal 
hero. She replied: Stephen Hawking. Believe me, I have abso- 
lutely nothing against Larry Bird or Michael Jordan, but wouldn’t 
it be lovely if even one American kid in 10,000 gave such an 
answer. The article went on to say that science whizzes are class 
heroes in Korean schools, not isolated and ostracized dweebs. 

English wars may have been won on the playing Helds of Eton, 
but American careers in^ science are destroyed on the play- 
grounds of Shady Oaks Elementary School. Can we not invoke 
dinosaur power to alleviate these unspoken tragedies? Can’t 
dinosaurs be the great levelers and integrators — thejoint passion 
of the class rowdy and the class intellectual? I will know that we 
are on our way when the kid who names Chasmosaurus as his per- 
sonal hero also earns the epithet of Mr. Cool. 


I had never made an explicit request of readers before, but I was 
really curious and couldn’t find the answer in my etymological 
books. Hence, my little parenthetical inquiry about segue: “Can 
anyone tell me how this fairly obscure Italian term from my musi- 
cal education managed its recent entry into trendy American 
speech?” The question bugged me because two of my students, 
innocent alas (as most are these days) of classical music, use segue 
all the time, and I longed to know where they found it. Both 
simply considered segue as Ur-English when I asked, perhaps the 
very next word spoken by our ultimate forefather after his intro- 


ductory, palindromic “Madam I’m Adam” (as in “segue into the 
garden with me, won’t you”). 

I am profoundly touched and gratified. The responses came in 
waves and even yielded, I believe, an interesting resolution. 
(These letters also produced the salutary effect of reminding me 
how lamentably ignorant I am about a key element of American 
culture — pop music and its spin-offs.) I’ve always said to myself 
that I write these essays primarily for personal learning; this claim 
has now passed its own test. 

One set of letters (more than two dozen) came from people in 
their twenties and thirties who had been (or in a case or two, still 
are) radio deejays for rock stations (a temporary job on a college 
radio station for most). They all report that segue is a standard 
term for the delicate task (once rather difficult in the days of 
records and turntables) of making an absolutely smooth transi- 
tion, without any silence in between or words to cover the 
change, from one song to the next. 

I was quite happy to accept this solution, but I then began to 
receive letters from old-timers in the radio and film business — all 
pointing to uses in the 1920s and 1930s (and identifying the lingo 
of rock deejays as a later transfer). David Emil wrote of his work 
in television during the mid-1960s: 

The word was in usage as a noun and verb when I worked in 
the television production industry. ... It was common for 
television producers to use the phrase to refer to connec- 
tions between segments of television shows. . . . Interest- 
ingly, although I read a large number of scripts at this time, 

I never saw the word in writing or knew how it was spelled 
until the mid-1970s when I came across the word in a more 
traditional usage. 

Bryant Mather, former curator of minerals at the Field Mu- 
seum in Chicago, sent me an old mimeographed script of his sole 
appearance on radio — an NBC science show of 1940 entitled How 
Do You Know, and produced “as a public service feature by the 
Field Museum of Natural History in cooperation with the Univer- 
sity Broadcasting Council.” 

The script, which uses segue to describe all transitions between 
scenes in a dramatization of the history of the Orloff diamond, 


reminds us by its stereotyping and barely concealed racism (de- 
spite the academic credentials of its origin) that some improve- 
ments have been made in our attitudes toward human diversity. 
In one scene, for example, the diamond is bought by Isaacs, de- 
scribed as “a Jewish merchant.” His hectoring wife, called 
‘ Mama” by Mr. Isaacs, keeps pestering: “Buy it, Isaacs — you hear 
me — buy it. Isaacs later sells to a shifty Persian, who cheats him 
by placing lead coins under the surface of gold in his treasure 
bag. Isaacs, discovering the trick, laments: “Counterfeit — lead — 
oi, oi, oi — Mama — we are ruined — we are ruined.” (Shades of 
Shylock — my ducats, my daughter.) The script’s next line reads 
“segue to music suggestive of Amsterdam or busy port.” 

Page Gilman made the earliest link to radio and traced a most 
sensible transition (dare I say segue) between musical and mod- 
ern media usages. I will accept his statement as our best resolu- 
tion to date: 

I think you may find that a bridge between the classical 
music to which you refer and today’s disk jockey use would 
be the many years of network radio. I began in 1927 and 
even the earliest scripts would occasionally use “segue” be- 
cause we had a big staff of professional working musicians — 
people who worked (in those days) in restaurants, theaters 
(especially), and now radio. Today you’ll find a real corps of 
such folks only in New York and L.A. . . . You’ll find me 
corroborated a little by Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, who 
remembers Horace Heidt’s orchestra at the Golden Gate 
Theater in San Francisco. That was the time when I was 
dating one of the Downey Sisters in the same orchestra. 
[May I also report the confirmation of my beloved 92-year- 
old Uncle Mordie of Rochester, New York, who relished his 
1920s daily job in a movie orchestra, playing with the Wur- 
litzer during the silents and between shows — and never 
liked nearly as much his forty-year subsequent stint as lead 
violist in the Rochester Symphony.] I wonder if Bruce 
Springsteen ever heard of “segue.” On such uncultured 
times have working musicians fallen. 

This tracing of origins does not solve the more immediate 
problem of recent infiltration into general trendy speech. But 


perhaps this is not even an issue in our media-centered world, 
where any jargon of the industry stands poised to break out. 
Among many suggestions for this end of the tale, several readers 
report that Johnny Carson has prominently used segue during the 
past few years — and I doubt that we would need much more to 
effect a general spread. 

Finally, on my more general inquiry into the sources of our 
current dinomania, I can’t even begin to chronicle the interesting 
suggestions for fear of composing another book. Just one wistful 
observation for now. Last year, riding a bus down Haight Street 
in San Francisco, I approached the junction with Ashbury eager 
to see what businesses now occupied the former symbolic and 
actual center of American counterculture. Would you believe 
that just three or four stores down from the junction itself stands 
one of those stores that peddles nothing but reptilian parapher- 
nalia and always seems to bear the now-cliched name “Dino- 
store.” What did Tennyson say in the Idylls of the King? 

The old order changeth, yielding 
place to new; 

And God fulfills himself in 
many ways, 

Lest one good custom should corrupt 
the world. 



Of Kiwi Eggs and the 
Liberty Bell 

like ozymandias, once king of kings but now two 
legs of a broken statue in Percy Shelley’s desert, the great fagade 
of Union Station in Washington, D.C., stands forlorn (but ready 
to front for a bevy of yuppie emporia now under construction), 
while Amtrak now operates from a dingy outpost at the side.* Six 
statues, portraying the greatest of human arts and inventions, 
grace its parapet. Electricity holds a bar of lightning; his inscrip- 
tion proclaims: Carrier of light and power. Devourer of time and 
space. . . . Greatest servant of man. . . . Thou hast put all things 
under his feet.” 

Yet I will cast my vote for the Polynesian double canoe, con- 
structed entirely with stone adzes, as the greatest invention for 
devouring time and space in all human history. These vessels 
provided sufficient stability for long sea voyages. The Polynesian 
people, without compass or sextant, but with unparalleled under- 
standing of stars, waves, and currents, navigated these canoes to 
colonize the greatest emptiness of our earth, the “Polynesian tri- 
angle,” stretching from New Zealand to Hawaii to Easter Island 
at its vertices. Polynesians sailed forth into the open Pacific more 
than a thousand years before Western navigators dared to leave 

*It is so good and pleasant, in our world of woe and destruction, to report some 
good news for a change. Union Station has since reopened with a triumphant and 
vibrant remodeling that fully respects the spirit and architecture of the original. 
Trains now depart from the heart of this great station, and a renaissance of ratio- 
nal public transportation, with elements of grand style at the termini, may not be a 
pipe dream. 



the coastline of Africa and make a beeline across open water from 
the Guinea coast to the Cape of Good Hope. 

New Zealand, southwestern outpost of Polynesian migrations, 
is so isolated that not a single mammal (other than bats and seals 
with their obvious means of transport) managed to intrude. New 
Zealand was a world of birds, dominated by several species (thir- 
teen to twenty-two by various taxonomic reckonings) of large, 
flightless moas. Only Aepyomis, the extinct elephant bird of 
Madagascar, ever surpassed the largest moa. Dinorms maximus, in 
weight. Ornithologist Dean Amadon estimated the average 
weight of D. maximus at 520 pounds (although some recent revi- 
sions nearly double this bulk), compared with about 220 pounds 
for ostriches, the largest living birds. 

We must cast aside the myths of noble non-Westerners living 
in ecological harmony with their potential quarries. The ances- 
tors of New Zealand’s Maori people based a culture on hunting 
moas, but soon made short work of them, both by direct removal 
and by burning of habitat to clear areas for agriculture. Who 
could resist a 500-pound chicken? 

Only one species of New Zealand ratite has survived. (Ratites 
are a closely related group of flightless ground birds, including 
moas, African ostriches, South American rheas, and Australian- 
New Guinean emus and cassowaries. Flying birds have a keeled 
breastbone, providing sufficient area for attachment of massive 
flight muscles. The breastbones of ratites lack a keel, and their 
name honors that most venerable of unkeeled vessels, the raft, or 
ratis in Latin.) We know this curious creature more as an icon on 
tins of shoe polish or as the moniker for New Zealand’s human 
inhabitants — the kiwi, only hen-sized, but related most closely to 
moas among birds. 

Three species of kiwis inhabit New Zealand today, all members 
of the genus Apteryx (literally, wingless). Kiwis lack an external 
tail, and their vestigial wings are entirely hidden beneath a curi- 
ous plumage — shaggy, more like fur than feathers, and similar in 
structure to the juvenile down of most other birds. (Maori arti- 
sans used kiwi feathers to make the beautiful cloaks once worn by 
chiefs; but the small, secretive, and widely ranging nocturnal 
kiwis managed to escape the fate of their larger moa relatives.) 

The furry bodies, with even contours unbroken by tail or 
wings, are mounted on stout legs — giving the impression of a 


double blob (small head and larger body) on sticks. Kiwis eat 
seeds, berries, and other parts of plants, but they favor earth- 
worms. Their long, thin bills probe the soil continually, suggest- 
ing the oddly reversed perspective of a stick leading a blind man. 
This stick, however, is richly endowed as a sensory device, partic- 
ularly as an organ of smell. The bill, uniquely among birds, bears 
long external nostrils, while the olfactory bulb of kiwi brains is 
second largest among birds relative to size of the forebrain. A 
peculiar creature indeed. 

But the greatest of kiwi oddities centers upon reproduction. 
Females are larger than males. They lay one to three eggs and 
may incubate them for a while, but they leave the nest soon there- 
after, relegating to males the primary task of incubation, a long 
seventy to eighty-four days. Males sit athwart the egg, body at a 
slight angle and bill stretched out along the ground. Females may 
return occasionally with food, but males must usually fend for 

An amazing and famous photo of a female kiwi one day before laying its 
enormous egg. courtesy of the otorohanga zoological society, new 



themselves, covering both eggs and nest entrance with debris 
and going forth to forage once or twice on most nights. 

The kiwi egg is a wonder to behold, and the subject of this 
essay. It is, by far, the largest of all bird eggs relative to body size. 
The three species of kiwis just about span the range of domestic 
poultry: the largest about the size of Rhode Island Reds; the 
smallest similar to bantams — say five pounds as a rough average 
(pretty meaningless, given the diversity of species, but setting the 
general domain). The eggs range to 25 percent of the female’s 
body weight — quite a feat when you consider that she often lays 
two, and sometimes three, in a clutch, spacing them about thirty- 
three days apart. A famous X-ray photo of kiwi and egg taken at 
the kiwi sanctuary of Otorohanga, New Zealand, tells the tale 
more dramatically than any words I could produce. The egg is so 
large that females must waddle, legs spread far apart, for several 
days before laying, as the egg passes down the oviduct toward the 
cloaca. The incubation patch of male kiwis extends from the top 
of the chest all the way down to the cloaca — in other words, they 
need almost all their body to cover the egg. 

A study of the general relationship between egg size and body 
size among birds shows that average birds of kiwi dimensions lay 
eggs weighing from 55 to 100 grams (as do domestic hens). Eggs 
of the brown kiwi weigh between 400 and 435 grams (about a 
pound). Put another way, an egg of this size would be expected 
from a twenty-eight-pound bird, but brown kiwis are about six 
times as small. 

The obvious question, of course, is why? Evolutionary biolo- 
gists have a traditional approach to riddles of this sort. They seek 
some benefit for the feature in question, then argue that natural 
selection has worked to build these advantages into the animal’s 
way of life. The greatest triumphs of this method center upon 
odd structures that seem to make no sense or (like the kiwi egg) 
appear, prima facie, to be out of proportion and probably harm- 
ful. After all, anyone can see that a bird’s wing (although not a 
kiwi’s) is well designed for flight, so reference to natural selection 
teaches you little about adaptation that you didn’t already know. 
Thus, the test cases of textbooks are apparently harmful struc- 
tures that, on closer examination, confer crucial benefits upon 
organisms in their Darwinian struggle for reproductive success. 


This general strategy of research suggests that if you can find 
out what a structure is good for, you will possess the major ingre- 
dient for understanding why it is so big, so colorful, so peculiarly 
shaped. Kiwi eggs should illustrate this basic method. They seem 
to be too big, but if we can discover how their large size benefits 
kiwis, we shall understand why natural selection favored large 
eggs. Readers who have followed my essays for some time will 
realize that I wouldn’t be writing about this subject if I didn’t 
think that this style of Darwinian reasoning embodied a crucial 

The flaw lies not with the claim of utility. I regard it as proved 
that kiwis benefit from the unusually large size of their eggs — and 
for the most obvious reason. Large eggs yield large and well- 
developed chicks that can fend for themselves with a minimum of 
parental care after hatching. Kiwi eggs are not only large; they are 
also the most nutritious of all bird eggs for a reason beyond their 
maximal bulk: they contain a higher percentage of yolk than any 
other egg. Brian Reid and G. R. Williams report that kiwi eggs 
may contain 61 percent yolk and 39 percent albumin (or white). 
By comparison, eggs of other so-called precocial species (with 
downy young hatching in an active, advanced, and open-eyed 
state) contain 35 to 45 percent yolk, while eggs of altricial species 
(with helpless, blind, and naked hatchlings) carry only 13 to 28 
percent yolk. 

The lifestyle of kiwi hatchlings demonstrates the benefits of 
their large, yolky eggs. Kiwis are born fully feathered and usually 
receive no food from their parents. Before hatching, they con- 
sume the unused portion of their massive yolk reserve and do not 
feed (but live off these egg-based supplies) for their first seventy- 
two to eighty-four hours alfresco. Newly hatched brown kiwi 
chicks are often unable to stand because their abdomens are so 
distended with this reserve of yolk. They rest on the ground, legs 
splayed out to the side, and only take a first few clumsy steps 
when they are some sixty hours old. A chick does not leave its 
burrow until the fifth to ninth day when, accompanied by father, 
it sallies forth to feed sparingly. 

Kiwis thus spend their first two weeks largely living off the yolk 
supply that their immense egg has provided. After ten to four- 
teen days, the kiwi chick may weigh one-third less than at hatch- 


ing — a fasting marked by absorption of ingested yolk from the 
egg. Brian Reid studied a chick that died a few hours after hatch- 
ing. Almost half its weight consisted of food reserves — 1 12 grams 
of yolk and 43 grams of body fat in a 319-gram hatchling. An- 
other chick, killed outside its burrow five to six days after hatch- 
ing, weighed 281 grams and still held almost 54 grams of 
enclosed yolk. 

I am satisfied that kiwis do very well by and with their large 
eggs. But can we conclude that the outsized egg was built by 
natural selection in the light of these benefits? This assumption — 
the easy slide from current function to reason for origin — is, to 
my mind, the most serious and widespread fallacy of my profes- 
sion, for this false inference supports hundreds of conventional 
tales about pathways of evolution. 1 like to identify this error of 
reasoning with a phrase that ought to become a motto: Current 
utility may not be equated with historical origin, or, when you demon- 
strate that something works well, you have not solved the prob- 
lem of how, when, or why it arose. 

I propose a simple reason for labeling an automatic inference 
from current utility to historical origin as fallacious: Good func- 
tion has an alternative interpretation. A structure now useful may 
have been built by natural selection for its current purpose (I do 
not deny that the inference often holds), but the structure may 
also have developed for another reason (or for no particular 
functional reason at all) and then been co-opted for its present 
use. The giraffe’s neck either got long in order to feed on succu- 
lent leaves atop acacia trees or it elongated for a different reason 
(perhaps unrelated to any adaptation of feeding), and giraffes 
then discovered that, by virtue of their new height, they could 
reach some delicious morsels. The simple good fit of form to 
function — long neck to top leaves — permits, in itself, no conclu- 
sion about why giraffes developed long necks. Since Voltaire un- 
derstood the foibles of human reason so well, he allowed the 
venerable Dr. Pangloss to illustrate this fallacy in a solemn pro- 

Things cannot be other than they are. . . . Everything is 
made for the best purpose. Our noses were made to carry 
spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly in- 
tended for breeches, and we wear them. 


This error of sliding too easily between current use and histori- 
cal origin is by no means a problem for Darwinian biologists 
alone, although our faults have been most prominent and unex- 
amined. This procedure of false inference pervades all fields that 
try to infer history from our present world. My favorite current 
example is a particularly ludicrous interpretation of the so-called 
anthropic principle in cosmology. Many physicists have pointed 
out — and I fully accept their analysis — that life on earth fits in- 
tricately with physical laws regulating the universe, in the sense 
that were various laws even slightly different, molecules of the 
proper composition and planets with the right properties could 
never have arisen — and we would not be here. From this anal- 
ysis, a few thinkers have drawn the wildly invalid inference that 
human evolution is therefore prefigured in the ancient design 
of the cosmos — that the universe, in Freeman Dyson’s words, 
must have known we were coming. But the current fit of human 
life to physical laws permits no conclusion about the reasons 
and mechanisms of our origin. Since we are here, we have 
to fit; we wouldn't be here if we didn't — though something 
else would, probably proclaiming, with all the hubris that a 
diproton might muster, that the cosmos must have been created 
with its later appearance in mind. (Diprotons are a prominent 
candidate for the highest bit of chemistry in another conceivable 

But back to kiwi eggs. Most literature has fallen into the fallacy 
of equating current use with historical origin, and has defined the 
problem as explaining why the kiwi’s egg should have been ac- 
tively enlarged from an ancestor with an egg more suited to the 
expectations of its body size. Yet University of Arizona biologist 
William A. Calder III, author of several excellent studies on kiwi 
energetics (see 1978, 1979, and 1984 in the bibliography), has 
proposed an opposite interpretation that strikes me as much 
more likely (though I think he has missed two or three good 
arguments for its support, and I shall try to supply them here). 

The alternative interpretation holds that kiwis are phyletic 
dwarfs, evolved from a lineage of much larger birds. Since these 
large ancestors laid big eggs appropriate to their body size, kiwis 
just never (or only slightly) reduced the size of their eggs as their 
bodies decreased greatly in bulk. In other words, kiwi eggs never 
became unusually large; kiwi bodies got small — and these state- 


ments are not equivalent, just as we know that an obese man is 
not short for his weight, despite the old jest. 

(Such a hypothesis is not anti-adaptationist in the sense that 
maintenance of a large egg as size decreases — and in the face of 
energetic and biochemical costs imposed by such a whopping 
contribution to the next generation — may well require a direct 
boost from natural selection to prevent an otherwise advanta- 
geous decrease more in keeping with life at Colonel Sanders’s 
favorite size. Still, there is a world of difference between retaining 
something you already have, and first developed for other rea- 
sons [in this case simple appropriateness for large body size], and 
actively evolving such a unique and cumbersome structure for 
some special benefit.) 

Calder’s interpretation might seem forced or farfetched but for 
the outstanding fact of taxonomy and biogeography cited as the 
introduction to this essay. Moas are the closest cousins of kiwis, 
and most moas were very large birds. “Is the kiwi perhaps a 
shrunken moa?” Calder asks. Unfortunately, all moa fossils lie in 
rocks of a geological yesterday, and kiwi fossils are entirely un- 
known — so we have no direct evidence about the size of ancestral 
kiwis. Still, I believe that all the inferential data support Calder’s 
alternative hypothesis for the great size of kiwi eggs — a “struc- 
tural” or “historical” explanation if you will, not a conventional 
account based on natural selection for immediate advantages. 

Although the best argument for viewing kiwis as much smaller 
than their ancestors must be the large size of their closest moa 
cousins, Calder has also developed a quirky and intriguing specu- 
lation to support the dwarfed status of kiwis. (I hasten to point 
out that neither of these arguments amounts to more than a rea- 
sonable conjecture. All evidence can be interpreted in other 
ways. Both moas and kiwis, for example, might have evolved from 
a kiwi-sized common ancestor, with moas enlarging later. Still, 
since the kiwi is the smallest of all ratites — a runt among os- 
triches, rheas, emus, and cassowaries — its decrease seems more 
probable than moa increase. But we will not know until we have 
direct evidence of fossil ancestry.) 

Calder notes that in many respects, some rather curious, kiwis 
have adopted forms and lifestyles generally associated with mam- 
mals, not birds. Kiwis, for example, are unique among birds in 
retaining ovaries on both sides (the right ovary degenerates in all 


other birds) — and eggs alternate between sides, as in mammals. 
The seventy- to eighty-four-day incubation period matches the 
eighty-day pregnancy expected for a mammal of kiwi body size, 
not the forty-four days predicted for birds of this weight. Calder 
continues: “When one adds to this list, the kiwi’s burrow habit, its 
furlike body feathers, and its nocturnal foraging highly depen- 
dent on its sense of smell, the evidence for convergence seems 
overpowering.” Of course, this conjunction of traits could be 
fortuitous and each might mean something quite unmammalian 
to a kiwi, but the argument does gain strength when we remem- 
ber that no terrestrial mammals reached New Zealand, and that 
the success of many introduced species indicates a hospitable 
environment for any creature that could exploit a mammalian 
way of life. 

You will be wondering what these similarities with mammals 
could possibly mean for my key claim that kiwis are probably 
descendants of much larger birds. After all, mammals are supe- 
rior, noble, and large. But they aren’t. The original and quintes- 
sential mammalian way of life (still exploited by a majority of 
species) is secretive, furtive, nocturnal, smell-oriented in a non- 
visual world — and, above all, small. Remember that for two- 
thirds of their geological history, all mammals were little 
creatures living in the interstices of a world ruled by dinosaurs. If 
a large bird converged upon a basically mammalian lifestyle in 
the absence of “proper” inhabitants as a result of geographic 
isolation, decrease in size would probably be a first and best step. 

Perhaps I have convinced you that kiwis probably decreased in 
size during their evolution. But why should this dwarfing help to 
explain their large eggs? Why didn’t egg size just keep pace with 
body size as kiwis scaled down? We now come to the strong evi- 
dence of the case. 

The study of changes in form and proportion as organisms 
increase or decrease in size is called allometry. It has been a 
popular and fruitful subject in evolutionary research since Julian 
Huxley’s pioneering work of the 1920s. One of Huxley’s own 
classic studies ( Journal of the Linnaean Society of London, 1927) bore 
the title: “On the Relation between Egg-weight and Body-weight 
in Birds.” Huxley found that if you plot one point for each spe- 
cies on the hummingbird-to-moa curve for egg weight versus 
body weight, relative egg size decreases in an even and predicta- 


ble way. The eggs of large birds, he found, are absolutely larger, 
but relatively smaller in proportion to body weight, than those of 
small birds. 

Huxley’s work has since been extended several times with 
more voluminous and consistent data. In the two best studies that 
I know, Samuel Brody (in his masterful compendium, Bioenergetics 
and Growth , 1945) calculated a slope of 0.73, while H. Rahn, C. V. 
Paganelli, and A. Ar (1975), with even more data from some 800 
species, derived a similar value of 0.67. This means that as birds 
increase in body weight, egg weight enlarges only about two- 
thirds as fast. Conversely, as birds decrease in size, egg weight 
diminishes more slowly — so little birds have relatively heavy 

This promising datum will not, however, explain the kiwi’s out- 
sized egg, for the two-thirds slope represents the general stan- 
dard for all birds. Kiwi eggs are huge compared with the expected 
egg weight for a bird of kiwi body weight along this standard 

But the literature of allometry has also yielded a generality that 
will, I think, explain the kiwi’s massive egg. The two-thirds slope 
of the egg weight/body weight curve represents a type of allome- 
try technically called interspecific scaling — that is, you plot one 
point for each species in a related group of organisms and at- 
tempt to establish the characteristic change of proportion along a 
gradient of increasing size. (These curves are popularly called 
mouse-to-elephant for relationships among mammals — hence 
my designation hummingbird-to-moa for birds.) Allometricians 
have established hundreds of interspecific curves for birds and 

Another kind of allometry is called intraspecific scaling. Here 
you plot one point for each individual among adults of varying 
body weights within a single species — the Tom Thumb-to-Ma- 
nute Bol curve for human males, if you will. Since the similarity of 
these technical terms — interspecific and intraspecific— is so con- 
fusing, I shall call them, instead, among-species (for mouse-to- 
elephant) and within-species (for Thumb-to-Bol). 

As an important generality in allometric studies, within-species 
curves usually have a substantially lower slope than among-spe- 
cies curves for the same property. For example (and in our best- 
studied case), the mouse-to-elephant curve for brain weight 



versus body weight in mammals has a slope of about two-thirds 
(as does the egg weight/body weight curve for birds). But the 
within-species curve from small to large adults of a single species, 
while varying from one group to another, almost always has a 
much lower slope in the range of 0.2 to 0.4. In other words, while 
brains increase about two-thirds as fast as bodies among species 
(implying that large mammals have relatively small brains), 
brains only increase about one-filth to two-fifths as fast as bodies 
when we move from small to large adults within a single mam- 
malian species. 

Such a regularity, if it applied to egg weight as well, could 
resolve the kiwi paradox — if kiwis evolved from larger ancestors. 
Suppose that kiwi forebears start at moa size. By the humming- 
bird-to-moa among-species standard, egg size should decrease 
along the two-thirds slope. But suppose that natural selection is 
operating to favor small adults within a population. If the within- 
species curve for egg weight had a slope much lower than two- 
thirds, then size decrease by continued selection of small adults 
might produce a new species with outsized eggs well above the 
two-thirds slope, and therefore well above the expected weight 
for a bird of this reduced size. (Quantitative arguments like this 
are always easier to grasp by picture than by words — and a glance 
at the accompanying graph should resolve any confusion.) 

But what is the expected within-species relationship for egg 
weight? Is the shape of the curve low, as for brain weight, thus 
affirming my conjecture? I reached for my well-worn copy of 
Brody’s unparalleled compendium and found that for adults of 
domestic fowl, egg weight increases not two-thirds as fast, but 
only 15 percent as fast as body weight! (Brody uses this fact to 
argue that small hens are usually better than large, so long as egg 
production remains the same — for egg size diminishes very little 
with a large decrease in body mass, and the small loss in egg 
volume is more than compensated by large decreases in feeding 

The same argument might apply to kiwis. As a poultryman 
might choose small hens for minimal decrease in egg size with 
maximal decline in body weight, natural selection for smaller 
adults might markedly decrease the average body weight within a 
species with very little accompanying reduction in egg weight. 

I believe that this general argument, applied to kiwis, may be 


Proposed allometric explanation for the large egg of the kiwi. The kiwi 
probably evolved from a much larger bird by backing down the very 
shallow within-species slope (upper line). Most birds arrange themselves 
on the standard hummingbird-to-moa curve with its steeper slope (lower 
line). Therefore, a kiwi has a much heavier egg than predicted for a bird 
of its body size, ben gamit. adapted from joe lemonnier. courtesy of 


defended on three strong grounds. First, as stated above, a gen- 
eral finding in allometric studies teaches us that within-species 
slopes for adults of one species are usually much lower than 
among-species slopes along mouse-to-elephant curves. Thus, 
any evolution of decreasing size along the within-species curve 
should produce a dwarfed descendant with more of the particular 
item being measured than an average nondwarfed species at the 
same body weight. Second, we have actual data, for domestic 
poultry at least, indicating that the within-species curve does have 
a substantially lower slope than the hummingbird-to-moa curve 
for our crucial measure of egg weight. 

Third, I have studied many cases of dwarfism, and I believe we 
can state as a general phenomenon — rooted in the first point 
above — that decline in body size often far outstrips decrease in 
many particular features. Dwarfs, in several respects, always seem 



to have much more of certain body parts than related non- 
dwarfed species of the same body size. For example, I once stud- 
ied tooth size in three species of dwarfed hippos (two fossil and 
the modern Liberian pygmy) — and found their molar teeth sub- 
stantially larger, for each of three separate evolutionary events, 
than expected values for related hoofed mammals at their body 
size (A merican Zoologist, 1975). 

In another example, the talapoin, a dwarfed relative of the 
rhesus monkey, has the largest relative brain weight among mon- 
keys. Since within-species brain curves have substantially lower 
slopes than the two-thirds value for the marmoset-to-baboon 
curve, evolution to smaller size by backing down the within-spe- 
cies curve would yield a dwarf with a far larger brain than an 
ordinary monkey at the same body size. 

Put all this together and a resolution fairly jumps at you for 
kiwis. Their enormous eggs require no special explanation if 
kiwis have evolved by marked decrease in size. Kiwi eggs exhibit 
the weight expected for backing down the within-species curve if 
natural selection operates only to decrease body size and no 
other factor intervenes to favor an active reduction in egg size — 
as we might anticipate in New Zealand, this easy land of no natu- 
ral predators, where a female might waddle without fear as an 
enormous egg distends her abdomen during passage down the 

In this interpretation, if you ask me why kiwi eggs are so large, I 
reply, “Because kiwis are dwarfed descendants of larger birds, 
and just followed ordinary principles of scaling in their evolu- 
tion.” This answer differs sharply from the conventional form of 
evolutionary explanation: “Because these big eggs are good for 
something now, and natural selection favored them.” 

My answer will also strike many people as deeply unsatisfac- 
tory. It provides a reason rooted in history, pure and simple (with 
a bit of scaling theory thrown in) — kiwis are as they are because 
their ancestors were as they were. Don’t we want answers that 
invoke general laws of nature rather than particular contingen- 
cies of history? 

I would reply that my resolution is quite satisfactory, that evo- 
lutionary arguments are often properly resolved by such histori- 
cal statements, and that we would do well to understand this 
important and neglected principle of reasoning — for we might 


save ourselves many a stumble in trying to apply preferred, but 
inappropriate, styles of explanation to situations encountered 
again and again in our daily lives. 

To cite just one example where I learned, to my deep chagrin, 
that a peculiarity of history, rather than a harmonious generality, 
resolved an old personal puzzle: I had been troubled for a long 
time by something I didn’t understand in the inscription on the 
Liberty Bell — not losing any sleep to be sure, but troubled none- 
theless, for little things count. This national symbol bears, like 
most bells, an appropriate quotation: ‘‘Proclaim liberty through- 
out all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof’ (Lev. 25: 10). But 
the bell also says, “Pass and Stow.” I assumed that this line must 
also be a quotation, fit to the purpose of the bell (as selection fits 
the features of organisms to their needs) — part of the general 
harmony and chosen plan. I pondered these cryptic words quite a 
bit because I didn’t recognize the source. I consulted Bartlett’s 
and found nothing. I constructed various possibilities: This too 
will pass, as we stow courage for the coming conflict; oh ye who 
pass by, remember, they prosper that stow and do not waste; pass 
the grass and stow the dough. Finally I asked the attendant on 
duty in Philadelphia. Of course, I should have figured it out, but I 
was too busy trying to make intrinsic sense of the inscription. The 
bell was cast by Messrs. John Pass and John Stow. Pass and Stow 
is a statement about the particular history of the bell; nothing 

My odd juxtapositions sometimes cause consternation; some 
readers might view this particular comparison as outright sacri- 
lege. Some may claim that the only conceivable similarity be- 
tween kiwi eggs and the Liberty Bell is that both are cracked, but I 
reply that they stand united in owing their peculiarity and mean- 
ing to pathways of history. 


The Liberty Bell on display in Philadelphia, advertising its makers, Mr. 
Pass and Mr. Stow, the bettmann archive. 

Male Nipples and Clitoral 

THE MARQUIS de condorcet, enthusiast of the 
French Revolution but not radical enough for the Jacobins — and 
therefore forced into hiding from a government that had de- 
creed, and would eventually precipitate, his death — wrote in 
1 793 that “the perfectibility of man is really boundless. ... It has 
no other limit than the duration of the globe where nature has set 
us.” As Dickens so aptly remarked, “It was the best of times, it 
was the worst of times.” 

The very next year, as Condorcet lay dying in prison, a famous 
voice from across the channel published another paean to prog- 
ress in a world that many judged on the brink of ruin. This trea- 
tise, called Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life, was written by 
Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. 

Zoonomia is primarily a dissertation on the mechanisms of 
human physiology. Yet, in the anachronistic tradition that judges 
biological works by their attitude to the great watershed of evolu- 
tion, established by grandson Charles in 1859, Zoonomia owes its 
modern reputation to a few fleeting passages that look upon or- 
ganic transmutation with favor. 

•The proper and most accurate title of this piece should be “Tits and Clits” — but 
such a label would be misread as sexist because people would not recognize the 
reference point as male tits. My wife, a master at titles, suggested this alternative. 
(During the short heyday of that most unnecessary of all commercially touted 
products — vaginal deodorants — she wanted to market a male counterpart to be 
known as “cocksure.”) Natural History magazine, published by a group of fine but 
slightly overcautious folks, first brought out this essay under their imposed title: 
“Freudian Slip.” Not terrible; but not really descriptive either. 



The evolutionary passages of Zoonomia occur in Item 8, Part 4, 
of Section 39, entitled, “Of Generation,” Erasmus Darwin’s 
thoughts on reproduction and embryology. He viewed embryol- 
ogy as a tale of continuous progress to greater size and complex- 
ity. Since his evolutionary speculations are strictly analogous to 
his concept of embryology, organic transformation also follows a 
single pathway to more and better: 

Would it be too bold to imagine that in the great length of 
time, since the earth began to exist ... all warm-blooded 
animals have arisen from one living filament . . . possessing 
the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent 
activity, and of delivering down those improvements by 
generation to its posterity, world without end? 

As the last sentence states, Erasmus Darwin’s proposed mecha- 
nism of evolution lay in the inheritance of useful characters ac- 
quired by organisms during their lifetimes. This false theory of 
heredity has passed through later history under the label of La- 
marckism, but the citation by Erasmus (a contemporary of La- 
marck) illustrates the extent of this misnomer. Inheritance of 
acquired characters was the standard folk wisdom of the time, 
used by Lamarck to be sure, but by no means original or distinc- 
tive with him. For Erasmus, this mechanism of evolution required 
a concept of pervasive utility. New structures arose only when 
needed and by direct organic striving for an evident purpose. 
Erasmus discusses adaptations in three great categories: repro- 
duction, protection and defense, and food. Of the last, he writes: 

All . . . seem to have been gradually produced during many 
generations by the perpetual endeavor of the creatures to 
supply the want of food, and to have been delivered to their 
posterity with constant improvement of them for the pur- 
poses required. 

In this long section, Erasmus considers only one potential ex- 
ception to the principle of pervasive utility: “the breasts and teats 
of all male quadrupeds, to which no use can be now assigned.” 
He also suggests two exits from this potential dilemma: first, that 
male nipples are vestiges of a previous utility if, as Plato had 


suggested, “mankind with all other animals were originally her- 
maphrodites during the infancy of the world, and were in process 
of time separated into male and female”; and second, that some 
males may lactate and therefore help to feed their babies (in the 
absence of any direct evidence, Erasmus cites the milky-colored 
feeding fluids, produced in the crops of both male and female 
pigeons, as a possible analogue). 

The tenacity of anomalies through centuries of changing be- 
liefs can be truly astounding. As a consequence of writing these 
essays for so many years, I receive hundreds of letters from read- 
ers puzzled about one or another apparent oddity of nature. With 
so large a sample, I have obtained a pretty good feel for the issues 
and particulars of evolution that pose conundrums for well-in- 
formed nonscientific readers. I have been fascinated (and, I con- 
fess, surprised) over the years to discover that no single item has 
evoked more puzzlement than the very issue that Erasmus Dar- 
win chose as a primary challenge to his concept of pervasive util- 
ity — male nipples. I have received more than a dozen requests to 
explain how evolution could possibly produce such a useless 

Consider my latest example from a troubled librarian. “I have a 
question that no one can answer for me, and I don't know where 
or how to look up the answer. Why do men have nipples? . . . This 
question nags at me whenever I see a man’s bare chest!” 

I was fascinated to note that her two suggestions paralleled 
exactly the explanations floated by Erasmus Darwin. Eirst, she 
reports, she asked a doctor. “He told me that men in primitive 
societies used to nurse babies.” Finding this incredible, she tried 
Darwin’s first proposal for nipples as a vestige of previous utility: 
“Can you tell me — was there once only one sex?” 

If you are committed — as Erasmus was, and as a distressingly 
common version of “pop,” or “cardboard,” Darwinism still is — 
to a principle of pervasive utility for all parts of all creatures, then 
male nipples do raise an insoluble dilemma, hence (I assume) my 
voluminous correspondence. But as with so many persistent puz- 
zles, the resolution does not lie in more research within an estab- 
lished framework but rather in identifying the framework itself as 
a flawed view of life. 

Suppose we begin from a different point of view, focusing on 


rules of growth and development. The external differences be- 
tween male and female develop gradually from an early embryo 
so generalized that its sex cannot be easily determined. The clito- 
ris and penis are one and the same organ, identical in early form, 
but later enlarged in male fetuses through the action of testoster- 
one. Similarly, the labia majora of women and the scrotal sacs of 
men are the same structure, indistinguishable in young embryos, 
but later enlarged, folded over, and fused along the midline in 
male fetuses. 

1 do not doubt that the large size and sensitivity of the female 
breast should count as an adaptation in mammals, but the smaller 
male version needs no adaptive explanation at all. Males and 
females are not separate entities, shaped independently by natu- 
ral selection. Both sexes are variants upon a single ground plan, 
elaborated in later embryology. Male mammals have nipples be- 
cause females need them — and the embryonic pathway to their 
development builds precursors in all mammalian fetuses, enlarg- 
ing the breasts later in females but leaving them small (and with- 
out evident function) in males. 

In a similar case that illuminates the general principle, the 
panda develops a highly functional false “thumb” from the radial 
sesamoid bone of its wrist. Interestingly, the corresponding bone 
of the foot, the tibial sesamoid, is also enlarged in the same man- 
ner (but not nearly so much), although increase of the tibial sesa- 
moid has no apparent function. 

As D. Dwight Davis argued in his great monograph on the giant 
panda (1964), evolution works on growth fields. Radial and tibial 
sesamoids are homologous structures, probably affected in con- 
cert by the same genetic factors. If natural selection operates for 
an enlarged radial sesamoid, a bigger tibial sesamoid will proba- 
blv “come along for the ride.” Davis drew a profound message 
from this case: Organisms are integral and constrained struc- 
tures, “pushing back” against the force of selection to channel 
changes along permitted paths; complex animals are not a disso- 
ciable collection of independent, optimal parts. Davis wrote that 
“the effect seen in the sympathetic enlargement of the tibial sesa- 
moid . . . strongly suggests that a very simple mechanism, per- 
haps involving a single factor, lies behind the hypertrophy of the 
radial sesamoid.” 


In my view of life, akin to Davis’s concept of constraint and 
integration, male nipples are an expectation based on pathways 
of sexual differentiation in mammalian embryology. 

At this point, readers might demur with the most crushing of 
all rejoinders: “Who cares?” Why worry about little items that 
ride piggyback on primary adaptations? Let’s concentrate on the 
important thing — the adaptive value of the female breast — and 
leave aside the insignificant male ornament that arises as its con- 
sequence. Adaptations are preeminent; their side effects are 
nooks and crannies of organic design, meaningless bits and 
pieces. This argument is, I think, the standard position of strict 
Darwinian adaptationists. 

I could defend the importance of structural nonadaptation 
with a long and abstruse general argument (I have done so in 
several technical papers). Let me proceed instead by the most 
compelling route I know by presenting a second example based 
on human sexuality, a case entirely comparable in concept with 
the origin of male nipples but differing in importance for human 
culture — a case, moreover, where the bias of utility has brought 
needless pain and anxiety into the lives of millions (where, in- 
deed, one might argue that Freudian traditions have provided a 
manifestly false but potent weapon, however unintentional, for 
the subjugation of women). Consider the anatomical site of or- 
gasm in human females. 

As women have known since the dawn of our time, the primary 
site for stimulation to orgasm centers upon the clitoris. The revo- 
lution unleashed by the Kinsey report of 1953 has, by now, made 
this information available to men who, for whatever reason, had 
not figured it out for themselves by the more obvious routes of 
experience and sensitivity. 

The data are unambiguous. Consider only the three most 
widely read of extensive surveys — the Kinsey report of 1953, 
Masters andjohnson’s book of 1966, and The Hite Report of 1976. 
In his study of genital anatomy, Kinsey reports that the female 
clitoris is as richly supplied with sensory nerves as the male 
penis — and therefore as capable of excitation. The walls of the 
vagina, on the other hand, “are devoid of end organs of touch 
and are quite insensitive when they are gently stroked or lightly 
pressed. For most individuals the insensitivity extends to every 
part of the vagina.” 


The data on masturbation are particularly convincing. Kinsey 
reports from his sample of 8,000 women that 84 percent of in- 
dividuals who have ever masturbated depend “primarily on labial 
and/or chloral techniques.” The Hite Report on 3,000 individuals 
found that 79 percent of women who masturbate do so by directly 
stimulating the clitoris and surrounding vulva, while only 1 .5 per- 
cent use vaginal entry. 

The data on intercourse affirm this pattern. Shere Hite reports 
a frequency of orgasm with intercourse at 30 percent and often 
attained only with simultaneous stimulation of the clitoris by 
hand. She concludes: “not to have orgasm from intercourse is the 
experience of the majority of women.” Masters and Johnson only 
included women who experienced orgasm with intercourse in 
their study. But they concluded that all orgasms are identical in 
physiology and clitoral in origin. These findings led Hite to com- 
ment that human copulation “sounds more like a Rube Goldberg 
scheme than a reliable way to orgasm. . . . Intercourse was never 
meant to stimulate women to orgasm.” As Kinsey had said earlier 
with his characteristic economy and candor: “The techniques of 
masturbation and of petting are more specifically calculated to 
effect orgasm than the techniques of coitus itself.” 

This conclusion should be utterly unsurprising — once we 
grasp the proper role and limitation of adaptationist argument in 
evolutionary biology. I don’t believe in the mystery style of writ- 
ing essays: build up suspense but save the resolution until the 
end — for then readers miss the significance of details along the 
way for want of proper context. The reason for a clitoral site of 
orgasm is simple — and exactly comparable with the nonpuzzle of 
male nipples. The clitoris is the homologue of the penis — it is the 
same organ, endowed with the same anatomical organization and 
capacity of response. 

Anatomy, physiology, and observed responses all agree. Why 
then do we identify an issue at all? Why, in particular, does the 
existence of clitoral orgasm seem so problematic? Why, for ex- 
ample, did Freud label clitoral orgasm as infantile and define 
feminine maturity as the shifting to an unattainable vaginal site? 

Part of the reason, of course, must reside in simple male vanity. 
We (and I mean those of my sex, not the vague editorial pro- 
noun) simply cannot abide the idea — though it flows from obvi- 
ous biology — that a woman's sexual pleasure might not arise 


most reliably as a direct result of our own coital efforts. But the 
issue extends further. Clitoral orgasm is a paradox not only for 
the traditions of Darwinian biology but also for the bias of utility 
that underlies all functionally based theories of evolution (includ- 
ing Lamarck’s and Darwin’s) and, in addition, the much older 
tradition of natural theology that saw God’s handiwork in the 
exquisite fit of organic form to function. 

Consider the paradox of clitoral orgasm in any world of strict 
functionalism (I present a Darwinian version, but parallel argu- 
ments can be made for the entire range of functionalist thinking, 
from Paley’s natural theology to Cuvier’s creationism): Evolution 
arises from a struggle among organisms for differential repro- 
ductive success. Sexual pleasure, in short, must evolve as a stimu- 
lus for reproduction. 

This formulation works for men since the peak of sexual excite- 
ment occurs during ejaculation — a primary and direct adjunct 
of intercourse. For men, maximal pleasure is linked with the 
greatest possibility of fathering offspring. In this perspective, 
the sexual pleasure of women should also be centered upon the 
act that causes impregnation — on intercourse itself. But how 
can our world be functional and Darwinian if the site of or- 
gasm is divorced from the place of intercourse? How can sexual 
pleasure be so separated from its functional significance in the 
Darwinian game of life? (For the most divergent, but equally 
functionalist, view of some conservative Christians, sex was made 
by God to foster procreation; any use in any other context is 

Elisabeth Lloyd, a philosopher of science at Berkeley, has just 
completed a critical study of explanations recently proposed by 
evolutionary biologists for the origin and significance of female 
orgasm. Nearly all these proposals follow the lamentable tradi- 
tion of speculative storytelling in the a priori adaptationist mode. 
In all the recent Darwinian literature, I believe that Donald Sy- 
mons is the only scientist who presented what I consider the 
proper answer — that female orgasm is not an adaptation at all. 
(See his book, The Evolution of Human Sexuality, 1979.) 

Many of these scientists don’t even know the simple facts of the 
matter; they assume that female orgasms are triggered by inter- 
course and draw the obvious Darwinian conclusion. A second 



group recognizes the supposed paradox of nonassociation be- 
tween orgasm and intercourse and then proposes another sort of 
adaptive explanation, usually based on maintenance of their pair 
bond by fostering close relationships through sexual pleasure. 
Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1969), the most widely read 
promoter of this view, writes that female orgasm evolved for its 
role in promoting the pair bond by “the immense behavioral 
reward it brings to the act of sexual cooperation with the mated 
partner.” Perhaps no popular speculation has been more andro- 
centric than George Pugh’s ( Biological Origin of Human Values, 
1977), who speaks about “the development of a female orgasm, 
which makes it easier for a female to be satisfied by one male, and 
which also operates psychologically to produce a stronger emo- 
tional bond in the female.” Or Eibl-Eibesfeldt, who argues 
(1975) that the evolution of female orgasm “increases her readi- 
ness to submit and, in addition, strengthens her emotional bond 
to the partner.” 

This popular speculation about pair bonding usually rests 
upon an additional biological assumption — almost surely false — 
that capacity for female orgasm is an especially human trait. Yet 
Symons shows, in his admirable review of the literature, that 
whereas most female mammals do not experience orgasm during 
ordinary copulation, prolonged clitoral stimulation — either ar- 
tificially in the laboratory (however unpleasant a context from the 
human point of view) or in nature by rubbing against another 
animal (often a female) — does produce orgasm in a wide range of 
mammals, including many primates. Symons concludes that “or- 
gasm is most parsimoniously interpreted as a potential all female 
mammals possess.” 

Adaptive stories for female orgasm run the full gamut — leaving 
only the assumption of adaptation itself unquestioned. Sarah 
Elrdy (1981), for example, has taken up the cudgels against an- 
drocentrism in evolutionary speculation, not by branding the en- 
tire enterprise as bankrupt, but by showing that she can tell just 
as good an adaptive story from a female-centered point of view. 
She argues — turning the old pair-bond theory on its head — that 
the dissociation between orgasm and intercourse is an adaptation 
for promiscuous behavior, permitting females to enlist the sup- 
port of several males to prevent any one from harming her ba- 


bies. (In many species, a male that displaces a female’s previous 
partner may kill her offspring, presumably to foster his own re- 
productive success by immediate remating.) 

Indeed, no one surpasses Hrdy in commitment to the adapta- 
tionist assumption that orgasm must have evolved for Darwinian 
utility in promoting reproductive success. Chosen language so 
often gives away an underlying bias; note Hrdy’s equation of 
nonadaptation both with despair in general and with the denigra- 
tion of women’s sexuality in particular. 

Are we to assume, then, that [the clitoris] is irrelevant? ... It 
would be safer to suspect that, like most organs ... it serves 
a purpose, or once did. . . . The lack of obvious purpose has 
left the way open for both orgasm, and female sexuality in 
general, to be dismissed as “nonadaptive.” 

But why are adaptationist arguments “safer,” and why is non- 
adaptation a “dismissal”? I do not feel degraded because my 
nipples are concomitants of a general pattern in human develop- 
ment and not a sign that ancestors of my sex once lactated. In 
fact, I find this nonadaptationist explanation particularly fascinat- 
ing, both because it teaches me something important about struc- 
tural rules of development and because it counters a pervasive 
and constraining bias that has harmed evolutionary biology by 
restricting the range of permitted hypotheses. Why should the 
dissociation of orgasm from intercourse degrade women when it 
merely records a basic (if unappreciated) fact of human anatomy 
that happens to unite both sexes as variations of a common pat- 
tern in development? (Such an argument would only hold if 
adaptations were “good” and all other aspects of anatomy “ir- 
relevant.” I, for one, am quite attached to all my body parts and 
do not make such invidious rankings and distinctions among 

I could go on but will stop here for the obvious reason that this 
discussion, however amusing, might be deemed devoid of social 
importance. After all, these biologists may be enjoying them- 
selves and promoting their view of life, but isn’t all this strictly 
entre nous? I mean, after all, who cares about speculative ideas if 
they impose no palpable harm upon people’s lives? But unfortu- 
nately, the history of psychology shows that one of the most in- 


fluential theories of our century — a notion that had a direct and 
deeply negative effect upon millions of women — rested upon the 
false assumption that clitoral orgasm cannot be the natural way of 
a mature female. I speak, of course, about Sigmund Freud’s the- 
ory of transfer from clitoral to vaginal orgasm. 

In Freud’s landmark and most influential book Three Essays on 
the Theory of Sexuality (1905, but first published in complete form 
in 1915), the third essay on “transformations of puberty” argues 
that “the leading erotogenic zone in female children is located at 
the clitoris.” He also, as a scientist originally trained in anatomy, 
knows the reason — that the clitoris “is homologous to the mascu- 
line genital zone of the glans penis.” 

Freud continues: “All my experience concerning masturbation 
in little girls has related to the clitoris and not the regions of the 
external genitalia that are important in later sexual functioning.” 
So far so good; freud recognizes the phenomenon, knows its 
anatomical basis, and should therefore identify clitoral orgasm as 
a proper biological expression of female sexuality. Not at all, for 
Freud then describes a supposed transformation in puberty that 
defines the sexuality of mature women. 

Puberty enhances the libido of boys but produces an opposite 
effect in girls — “a fresh wave of repression.” Later, sexuality 
resumes in a new way. Freud writes: 

When at last the sexual act is permitted and the clitoris itself 
becomes excited, it still retains a function: the task, namely, 
of transmitting the excitation to the adjacent female sexual 
parts, just as — to use a simile — pine shavings can be kindled 
in order to set a log of harder wood on fire. 

Thus, we encounter Freud’s famous theory of female sexual 
maturity as a transfer from clitoral to vaginal orgasm: 

When erotogenic susceptibility to stimulation has been suc- 
cessfully transferred by a woman from the clitoris to the 
vaginal orifice, it implies that she has adopted a new leading 
zone for the purposes of her later sexual activity. 

This dogma of transfer from clitoral to vaginal orgasm became a 
shibboleth of pop culture during the heady days of pervasive 


Freudianism. It shaped the expectations (and therefore the frus- 
tration and often misery) of millions of educated and “enlight- 
ened” women told by a brigade of psychoanalysts and by 
hundreds of articles in magazines and “marriage manuals” that 
they must make this biologically impossible transition as a defini- 
tion of maturity. 

Freud’s unbiological theory did further harm in two additional 
ways. First, Freud did not define frigidity only as an inability to 
perform sexually or as inefficacy in performance, but proposed as 
his primary definition a failure to produce this key transfer from 
clitoris to vagina. Thus, a woman who greatly enjoys sex, but only 
by clitoral stimulation, is frigid by Freud’s terminology. “This 
anaesthesia,” Freud writes, “may become permanent if the clito- 
ridal zone refuses to abandon its excitability.” 

Second, Freud attributed a supposedly greater incidence of 
neurosis and hysteria in women to the difficulty of this transfer — 
for men simply retain their sexual zone intact from childhood, 
while women must undergo the hazardous switch from clitoris to 
vagina. Freud continues: 

The fact that women change their leading erotogenic zone 
in this way, together with the wave of repression at puberty 
. . . are the chief determinants of the greater proneness of 
women to neurosis and especially to hysteria. These deter- 
minants, therefore, are intimately related to the essence of 

In short, Freud’s error may be encapsulated by stating that he 
defined the ordinary biology of female sexuality as an aberration 
based on failure to abandon an infantile tendency. 

The sources of Freud’s peculiar theory are complex and in- 
volve many issues not treated in this essay (in particular his an- 
drocentric biases in interpreting the act of intercourse from a 
man’s point of view and in defining both clitoral and penile stim- 
ulation in childhood as a fundamentally masculine form of sexu- 
ality that must be shunned by a mature woman). But another 
important source resides in the perspective underlying all the 
fanciful theories that I have discussed throughout this essay, from 
male nipples as sources of milk to clitoral orgasm as a clever 



invention to cement pair bonds — the bias of utility, or the exclu- 
sive commitment to functionalist explanations. 

The more I read Kinsey, the more he wins my respect for his 
humane sensibility, and for his simple courage. (His 1953 report 
on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female appeared during the height 
of McCarthyism in America and led to a withdrawal of funding for 
his research and the effective end, during his lifetime, of his pro- 
grams — see the essay “Of Wasps and WASPs” in my previous 
book, The Flamingo's Smile.) Kinsey was a measured man. He 
wrote in a dry and clinical fashion (probably more for reasons of 
necessity than inclinations of temperament). Yet, every once in a 
while, his passion spills forth and his rage erupts in a single, 
well-controlled phrase. Nowhere does Kinsey express more agi- 
tation than in his commentary on Freud’s theory of the shift from 
clitoral to vaginal orgasm. 

Kinsey locates his discussion of Freud in the proper context — 
in his section on sexual anatomy (Chapter 14, “Anatomy of Sex- 
ual Response and Orgasm”). He reports the hard data on adult 
masturbation and on the continuing clitoral site of orgasm in 
mature women. He locates the reason for clitoral orgasm not in 
any speculative theory about function but in the basic structure of 
sexual anatomy. 

In any consideration of the functions of the adult genitalia, 
and especially of their liability to sensory stimulation, it is 
important and imperative that one take into account the 
homologous origins of the structures in the two sexes. 

Kinsey then provides a long and beautifully clear discussion of 
anatomical homologies, particularly the key unity of penis and 
clitoris. He concludes that “the vaginal walls are quite insensitive 
in the great majority of females. . . . There is no evidence that the 
vagina is ever the sole source of arousal, or even the primary 
source of erotic arousal in any female.” Kinsey has now laid the 
foundation for a swift demolition of Freud’s hurtful theory. He 
cites (in a long footnote, for his text is not contentious) a com- 
pendium of psychoanalytical proclamations from the Freudian 
heyday of the 1920s to 1940s. Consider just three items on his 


1 . (from 1936): “If this transition [from clitoris to vagina] is not 
successful, then the woman cannot experience satisfaction in the 
sexual act. . . . The first and decisive requisite of a normal orgasm 
is vaginal sensitivity.” 

2. (again from 1936): “The sole criterion of frigidity is the 
absence of the vaginal orgasm.” 

3. (from 1927): “In frigidity the pleasurable sensation is as a 
rule situated in the clitoris and the vaginal zone has none.” 

Kinsey’s sole paragraph of evaluation ranks as the finest dis- 
missal by understatement (and by incisive phrase at the end) that 
I have ever read. 

This question is one of considerable importance because 
much of the literature and many of the clinicians, including 
psychoanalysts and some of the clinical psychologists and 
marriage counselors, have expended considerable effort 
trying to teach their patients to transfer “clitoral responses” 
into “vaginal responses.” Some hundreds of women in our 
own study and many thousands of the patients of certain 
clinicians have consequently been much disturbed by their 
failure to accomplish this biological impossibility. 

I then must ask myself, why could Kinsey be so direct and sensi- 
ble in 1953, while virtually all evolutionary discussion of female 
orgasm during the past twenty years has been not only biologi- 
cally erroneous but also obtuse and purely speculative? I’m sorry 
to convert this essay into something of a broken record in conten- 
tious repetition, but the same point pervades the discussion all 
the way from Erasmus Darwin on male nipples to Sarah Hrdy on 
clitoral orgasm. The fault lies in a severely restrictive (and often 
false) functionalist view of life. Most functionalists have not mis- 
interpreted male nipples, for their unobtrusive existence poses 
no challenge. But clitoral orgasm is too central to the essence of 
life for any explanation that does not focus upon the role of sexu- 
ality in reproductive success. And yet the obvious, nonadaptive 
structural alternative stares us in the face as the most elementary 
fact of sexual anatomy — the homology of penis and clitoris. 

Kinsey’s ability to cut through this morass right to the core of 
the strong developmental argument has interesting roots. Kinsey 
began his career by devoting twenty years to the taxonomy of 


gall-forming wasps. He pursued this work in the 1920s and 1930s 
before American evolutionary biology congealed around Dar- 
winian functionalism. In Kinsey’s day, many (probably most) tax- 
onomists accepted the nonadaptive nature of much small-scale 
geographic variability within species. Kinsey followed this struc- 
turalist tradition and never absorbed the bias of utility. He was 
therefore able to grasp the meaning of this elemental fact of ho- 
mology between penis and clitoris — a fact that stares everyone in 
the face, but becomes invisible if the bias of utility be strong 

I well remember something that Francis Crick said to me many 
years ago, when my own functionalist biases were strong. He 
remarked, in response to an adaptive story I had invented with 
alacrity and agility to explain the meaning of repetitive DNA: 
"Why do you evolutionists always try to identify the value of 
something before you know how it is made?” At the time, I dis- 
missed this comment as the unthinking response of a hidebound 
molecular reductionist who did not understand that evolutionists 
must always seek the “why” as well as the “how”— the final as 
well as the efficient causes of structures. 

Now, having wrestled with the question of adaptation for many 
years, I understand the wisdom of Crick’s remark. If all structures 
had a why framed in terms of adaptation, then my original 
dismissal would be justified for we would know that “whys” exist 
whether or not we had elucidated the “how.” But I am now con- 
vinced that many structures (including male nipples and clitoral 
orgasm) have no direct adaptational “why.” And we discover this 
by studying pathways of genetics and development — or, as Crick 
so rightly said to me, by first understanding how a structure is 
built. In other words, we must first establish “how” in order to 
know whether or not we should be asking “why” at all. 

I began with Charles Darwin’s grandpa Erasmus and end with 
his namesake, Desiderius Erasmus, the greatest of all Renais- 
sance scholars. Of more than 3,000 proverbs from antiquity col- 
lected in his Adagia of 1508, perhaps two are best known and 
wonderfully apt for the point of this essay (which is not a diatribe 
against adaptation but a plea for expansion by alternative hy- 
potheses and for fruitful competition and synthesis between 
functional and structural perspectives). First a comment on limi- 
tations of outlook: “No one is injured save by himself.” Second, 


probably the most famous of zoological metaphors about human 
temperament: “The fox has many tricks, and the hedgehog only 
one, but that is the best of all.” Some have taken the hedgehog’s 
part in this dichotomy, but I will cast my lot for a diversity of 
options — for our complex world may offer many paths to salva- 
tion, and the hounds of hell press continually upon us. 

Not Necessarily a Wing 

from Flesh Gordon to Alex in Wonderland, title paro- 
dies have been a stock-in-trade oflow comedy. We may not antic- 
ipate a tactical similarity between the mayhem of Mad magazine s 
movie reviews and the titles of major scientific works, yet two 
important nineteenth-century critiques of Darwin parodied his 
most famous phrases in their headings. 

In 1887, E. D. Cope, the American paleontologist known best 
for his fossil feud with O. C. Marsh (see Essay 5) but a celebrated 
evolutionary theorist in his own right, published The Origin of the 
Fittest — a takeoff on Herbert Spencer’s phrase, borrowed by Dar- 
win as the epigram for natural selection: survival of the fittest. 
(Natural selection, Cope argued, could only preserve favorable 
traits that must arise in some other manner, unknown to Darwin. 
1 he fundamental issue of evolution cannot be the differential 
survival of adaptive traits, but their unexplained origin — hence 
the title parody.) 

St. George Mivart (1817-1900), a fine British zoologist, tried 
to reconcile his unconventional views on religion and biology but 
ended his life in tragedy, rejected by both camps. At age seven- 
teen, he abandoned his Anglican upbringing, became a Roman 
Catholic, and consequently (in a less tolerant age of state reli- 
gion) lost his opportunity for training in natural history at Oxford 
or Cambridge. He became a lawyer but managed to carve out a 
distinguished career as an anatomist nonetheless. He embraced 
evolution and won firm support from the powerful T. H. Huxley, 
but his strongly expressed and idiosyncratic anti-Darwinian views 
led to his rejection by the biological establishment of Britain. He 



tried to unite his biology with his religion in a series of books and 
essays, and ended up excommunicated for his trouble six weeks 
before his death. 

Cope and Mivart shared the same major criticism of Darwin — 
that natural selection could explain the preservation and increase 
of favored traits but not their origin. Mivart, however, went gun- 
ning for a higher target than Darwin’s epigram. He shot for the 
title itself, naming his major book (1871) On the Genesis of Species. 
(Darwin, of course, had called his classic On the Origin of Species.) 

Mivart’s life may have ended in sadness and rejection thirty 
years later, but his Genesis of Species had a major impact in its time. 
Darwin himself offered strong, if grudging, praise and took Mi- 
vart far more seriously than any other critic, even adding a chap- 
ter to later editions of the Origin of Species primarily to counter 
Mivart’s attack. 

Mivart gathered, and illustrated “with admirable art and force” 
(Darwin’s words), all objections to the theory of natural selec- 
tion — “a formidable array” (Darwin’s words again). Yet one 
particular theme, urged with special attention by Mivart, stood 
out as the centerpiece of his criticism. This argument continues 
to rank as the primary stumbling block among thoughtful and 
friendly scrutinizers of Darwinism today. No other criticism 
seems so troubling, so obviously and evidently “right” (against 
a Darwinian claim that seems intuitively paradoxical and im- 

Mivart awarded this argument a separate chapter in his book, 
right after the introduction. He also gave it a name, remembered 
ever since. He called his objection “The Incompetency of ‘Natu- 
ral Selection’ to Account for the Incipient Stages of Useful Struc- 
tures.” If this phrase sounds like a mouthful, consider the easy 
translation: We can readily understand how complex and fully 
developed structures work and how their maintenance and pres- 
ervation may rely upon natural selection — a wing, an eye, the 
resemblance of a bittern to a branch or of an insect to a stick or 
dead leaf. But how do you get from nothing to such an elaborate 
something if evolution must proceed through a long sequence of 
intermediate stages, each favored by natural selection? You can’t 
fly with 2 percent of a wing or gain much protection from an 
iota’s similarity with a potentially concealing piece of vegetation. 


How, in other words, can natural selection explain the incipient 
stages of structures that can only be used in much more elabo- 
rated form? 

I take up this old subject for two reasons. First, I believe that 
Darwinism has, and has long had, an adequate and interesting 
resolution to Mivart’s challenge (although we have obviously 
been mightily unsuccessful in getting it across). Second, a paper 
recently published in the technical journal Evolution has provided 
compelling experimental evidence for this resolution applied to 
its most famous case — the origin of wings. 

The dilemma of wings — the standard illustration of Mivart’s 
telling point about incipient stages — is set forth particularly well 
in a perceptive letter that I recently received from a reader, a 
medical doctor in California. He writes: 

How does evolutionary theory as understood by Darwin ex- 
plain the emergence of items such as wings, since a small 
move toward a wing could hardly promote survival? I seem 
to be stuck with the idea that a significant quality of wing 
would have to spring forth all at once to have any survival 

Interestingly, my reader’s proposal that much or most of the 
wing must arise all at once (because incipient stages could have 
no adaptive value) follows Mivart’s own resolution. Mivart first 
enunciated the general dilemma (1871, p. 23): 

Natural selection utterly fails to account for the conserva- 
tion and development of the minute and rudimentary be- 
ginnings, the slight and infinitesimal commencements of 
structures, however useful those structures may afterwards 

After fifty pages of illustration, he concludes: “Arguments may 
yet be advanced in favor of the view that new species have from 
time to time manifested themselves with suddenness, and by 
modifications appearing at once.” Advocating this general solu- 
tion for wings in particular, he concludes (p. 107): “It is difficult, 
then, to believe that the Avian limb was developed in any other 


way than by a comparatively sudden modification of a marked 
and important kind.” 

Darwin’s theory is rooted in the proposition that natural selec- 
tion acts as the primary creative force in evolutionary change. 
This creativity will be expressed only if the fortuitous variation 
forming the raw material of evolutionary change can be ac- 
cumulated sequentially in tiny doses, with natural selection act- 
ing as the sieve of acceptance. If new species arise all at once in an 
occasional lucky gulp, then selection has no creative role. Selec- 
tion, at best, becomes an executioner, eliminating the unfit 
following this burst of good fortune. Thus, Mivart’s solution — 
bypassing incipient stages entirely in a grand evolutionary leap — 
has always been viewed, quite rightly, as an anti-Darwinian ver- 
sion of evolutionary theory. 

Darwin well appreciated the force, and potentially devastating 
extent, of Mivart’s critique about incipient stages. He counterat- 
tacked with gusto, invoking the standard example of wings and 
arguing that Mivart’s solution of sudden change presented more 
problems than it solved — for how can we believe that so complex 
a structure as a wing, made of so many coordinated and co- 
adapted parts, could arise all at once: 

He who believes that some ancient form was transformed 
suddenly through an internal force or tendency into, for 
instance, one furnished with wings, will be . . . compelled to 
believe that many structures beautifully adapted to all the 
other parts of the same creature and to the surrounding 
conditions, have been suddenly produced; and of such com- 
plex and wonderful co-adaptations, he will not be able to 
assign a shadow of an explanation. . . . To admit all this is, as 
it seems to me, to enter into the realms of miracle, and to 
leave those of Science. 

(This essay must now go in other directions but not without a 
small, tangential word in Mivart’s defense. Mivart did appreciate 
the problem of complexity and coordination in sudden origins. 
He did not think that any old complex set of changes could arise 
all at once when needed — that would be tantamount to miracle. 
Most of Mivart’s book studies the regularities of embryology and 
comparative anatomy to learn which kinds of complex changes 


might be possible as expressions and elaborations of develop- 
mental programs already present in ancestors. He advocates 
these changes as possible and eliminates others as fanciful.) 

Darwin then faced his dilemma and developed the interestingly 
paradoxical resolution that has been orthodox ever since (but 
more poorly understood and appreciated than any other princi- 
ple in evolutionary theory). If complexity precludes sudden ori- 
gin, and the dilemma of incipient stages forbids gradual 
development in functional continuity, then how can we ever get 
from here to there? Darwin replies that we must reject an un- 
necessary hidden assumption in this argument — the notion of 
functional continuity. We will all freely grant that no creature can 
fly with 2 percent of a wing, but why must the incipient stages be 
used for flight? If incipient stages originally performed a different 
function suited to their small size and minimal development, nat- 
ural selection might superintend their increase as adaptations for 
this original role until they reached a stage suitable for their cur- 
rent use. In other words, the problem of incipient stages disap- 
pears because these early steps were not inadequate wings but 
well-adapted something-elses. This principle of functional change 
in structural continuity represents Darwin’s elegant solution to the 
dilemma of incipient stages. 

Darwin, in a beau geste of argument, even thanked Mivart for 
characterizing the dilemma so well — all the better to grant Dar- 
win a chance to elaborate his solution. Darwin writes: “A good 
opportunity has thus been afforded [by Mivart] for enlarging a 
little on gradations of structure, often associated with changed 
functions — an important subject, which was not treated at suffi- 
cient length in the former editions of this work.” Darwin, who 
rarely added intensihers to his prose, felt so strongly about this 
principle of functional shift that he wrote: “In considering transi- 
tions of organs, it is so important to bear in mind the probability 
of conversion from one function to another.” 

Darwin presented numerous examples in Chapters 5 and 7 of 
the final edition of the Origin of Species. He discussed organs that 
perform two functions, one primary, the other subsidiary, then 
relinquish the main use and elaborate the formerly inconspicu- 
ous operation. He then examined the flip side of this phenome- 
non — functions performed by two separate organs (fishes 
breathing with both lungs and gills). He argues that one organ 


may assume the entire function, leaving the other free for evolu- 
tion to some other role (lungs for conversion to air bladders, for 
example, with respiration maintained entirely by gills). He does 
not, of course, neglect the classic example of wings, arguing that 
insects evolved their organs of (light from tracheae (or breathing 
organs — a minority theory today, but not without supporters). 
He writes: “It is therefore highly probable that in this great class 
organs which once served for respiration have been actually con- 
verted into organs of flight.” 

Darwin’s critical theory of functional shift, usually (and most 
unfortunately) called the principle of “preadaptation,”* has been 
with us for a century. I believe that this principle has made so 
little headway not only because the basic formulation seems para- 
doxical and difficult, but mainly because we have so little firm, 
direct evidence for such functional shifts. Our technical literature 
contains many facile verbal arguments — little more than plausi- 
ble “just-so” stories. The fossil record also presents some excel- 
lent examples of sequential development through intermediary 
stages that could not work as modern organs do — but we lack a 
rigorous mechanical analysis of function at the various stages. 

Let us return, as we must, to the classic case of wings. Archaeop- 
teryx, the first bird, is as pretty an intermediate as paleontology 

‘This dreadful name has made a difficult principle even harder to grasp and 
understand. Breadaptation seems to imply that the proto-wing, while doing some- 
thing else in its incipient stages, knew where it was going — predestined for a later 
conversion to flight. Textbooks usually introduce the word and then quickly dis- 
claim any odor of foreordination. (But a name is obviously ill-chosen if it cannot 
be used without denying its literal meaning.) Of course, by “preadaptation” we 
only mean that some structures are fortuitously suited to other roles if elaborated, 
not that they arise with a different future use in view — now there I go with the 
standard disclaimer. As another important limitation, preadaptation does not 
cover the important class of features that arise w ithout functions (as developmen- 
tal consequences of other primary adaptations, for example) but remain available 
for later co-optation. I suspect, for example, that many important functions of the 
human brain are co-opted consequences of building such a large computer for a 
limited set of adaptive uses. For these reasons, Elizabeth Vrba and I have pro- 
posed that the restrictive and confusing word ''preadaptation’' be dropped in 
favor of the more inclusive term ''exaptation" — for any organ not evolved under 
natural selection for its current use — either because it performed a different func- 
tion in ancestors (classical preadaptation) or because it represented a nonfunc- 
tional part available for later co-optation. See our technical article, “Exaptation: A 
Missing Term in the Science of Form,” Paleobiology, 1981 . 


could ever hope to find — a complex melange of reptilian and 
avian features. Scientists are still debating whether or not it could 
fly. If so, Archaeopteryx worked like the Wrights’ biplane to a mod- 
ern eagle’s Concorde. But what did the undiscovered ancestors 
of Archaeopteryx do with wing rudiments that surely could not pro- 
duce flight? Evolutionists have been invoking Darwin’s principle 
of functional shift for more than 1 00 years, and the list of propos- 
als is long. Proto-wings have been reconstructed as stabilizers, 
sexual attractors, or insect catchers. But the most popular hy- 
pothesis identifies thermoregulation as the original function of 
incipient stages that later evolved into feathered wings. Feathers 
are modified reptilian scales, and they work very well as insulat- 
ing devices. Moreover, if birds evolved from dinosaurs (as most 
paleontologists now believe), they arose from a lineage particu- 
larly subject to problems with temperature control. Archaeopteryx 
is smaller than any dinosaur and probably arose from the tiniest 
of dinosaur lineages. Small animals, with high ratios of surface 
area to volume, lose heat rapidly and may require supplementary 
devices for thermoregulation. Most dinosaurs could probably 
keep warm enough just by being large. Surface area (length X 
length, or length squared) increases more slowly than volume 
(length X length X length, or length cubed) as objects grow. 
Since animals generate heat over their volumes and lose it 
through their surfaces, small animals (with their relatively large 
surface areas) have most trouble keeping warm. 

There I go again — doing what I just criticized. I have presented 
a plausible story about thermoregulation as the original function 
of organs that later evolved into wings. But science is tested evi- 
dence, not tall tales. This lamentable mode of storytelling has 
been used to illustrate Darwin’s principle of functional shift only 
faute de mieux — because we didn’t have the goods so ardently de- 
sired. At least until recently, when my colleagues Joel G. King- 
solver and M. A. R. Koehl published the first hard evidence to 
support a shift from thermoregulation to flight as a scenario for 
the evolution of wings. They studied insects, not birds — but the 
same argument has long been favored for nature’s smaller and 
far more abundant wings (see their article, “Aerodynamics, Ther- 
moregulation, and the Evolution of Insect Wings: Differential 
Scaling and Evolutionary Change,” in Evolution, 1985). 

In preparing this essay, I spent several days reading the classi- 


cal literature on the evolution of insect flight — and emerged with 
a deeper understanding ofjust how difficult Darwin's principle of 
functional shift can be, even for professionals. Most of the litera- 
ture hasn’t even made the first step of applying functional shift at 
all, not to mention the later reform of substituting direct evi- 
dence for verbal speculation. Most reconstructions are still trying 
to explain the incipient stages of insect wings as somehow in- 
volved in airborne performance from the start — not for flapping 
flight, of course, but still for some aspect of motion aloft rather 
than, as Darwin’s principle would suggest, for some quite differ- 
ent function. 

To appreciate the dilemma of such a position (so well grasped 
by Mivart more than 100 years ago), consider just one recent 
study (probably the best and most widely cited) and the logical 
quandaries that a claim of functional continuity entails. In 1964, 
J. W. Flower presented aerodynamic arguments for wings 
evolved from tiniest rudiment to elaborate final form in the inter- 
est of airborne motion. Flower argues, supporting an orthodox 
view, that wings evolved from tiny outgrowths of the body used 
for gliding prior to elaboration for sustained flight. But Flower 
recognizes that these incipient structures must themselves evolve 
from antecedents too small to function as gliding planes. What 
could these very first, slight outgrowths of the body be for? Ig- 
noring Darwin’s principle of functional shift, Flower searches for 
an aerodynamic meaning even at this very outset. He tries to test 
two suggestions: E. H. Hinton’s argument that initial outgrowths 
served for “attitude control,” permitting a falling insect to land in 
a suitable position for quick escape from predators; and a pro- 
posal of the great British entomologist Sir Vincent Wigglesworth 
(wonderful name for an insect man, I always thought) that such 
first stages might act as stabilizing or controlling devices during 
takeoff in small, passively aerial insects. 

Flower proceeded by performing aerodynamic calculations on 
consequences of incipient wings for simple body shapes when 
dropped — and he quickly argued himself into an inextricable log- 
ical corner. He found, first of all, that tiny outgrowths might help, 
as Wigglesworth, Hinton, and others had suggested. But the ar- 
gument foundered on another observation: The same advan- 
tages could be gained far more easily and effectively by another, 


readily available alternative route — evolution to small size (where 
increased surface/volume ratios retard falling and enhance the 
probability of takeoff) . Flower then realized that he would have to 
specify a reasonably large body size for incipient wings to have 
any aerodynamic effect. But he then encountered another prob- 
lem: At such sizes, legs work just as well as, if not better than, 
proto-wings for any suggested aerodynamic function. Flower ad- 

The first conclusion to be drawn from these calculations is 
that the selective pressure in small insects is towards smaller 
insects, which would have no reason to evolve wings. 

1 would have stopped and searched elsewhere (in Darwin’s prin- 
ciple of functional shift) at this point, but Flower bravely con- 
tinued along an improbable path: 

The main conclusions, however, are that attitude control of 
insects would be by the use of legs or by very small changes 
in body shape [i.e., by evolving small outgrowths, or proto- 

Flower, in short, never considered an alternative to his as- 
sumption of functional continuity based upon some aspect of 
aerial locomotion. Ffe concluded: 

At first they [proto-wings] would affect attitude; later they 
could increase to a larger size and act as a true wing, provid- 
ing lift in their own right. Eventually they could move, giv- 
ing the insect greater maneuverability during descent, and 
finally they could “flap,” achieving sustained flight. 

As an alternative to such speculative reconstructions that work, 
in their own terms, only by uncomfortable special pleading, may 1 
suggest Darwin’s old principle of functional shift (preadapta- 
tion — ugh — for something else). 

The physiological literature contains voluminous testimony to 
the thermodynamic efficiency of modern insect wings: in present- 
ing, for example, a large surface area to the sun for quick heating 


(see B. Heinrich, 1981). If wings can perform this subsidiary 
function now, why not suspect thermoregulation as a primary 
role at the outset? M. M. Douglas (1981), for example, showed 
that, in Colias butterflies, only the basal one-third of the wing 
operates in thermoregulation — an area approximately equal to 
the thoracic lobes (proto-wings) of fossil insects considered an- 
cestral to modern forms. 

Douglas then cut down some Colias wings to the actual size of 
these fossil ancestral lobes and found that insects so bedecked 
showed a 55 percent greater increase in body temperature than 
bodies deprived of wings entirely. These manufactured proto- 
wings measured 5 by 3 millimeters on a body 15 millimeters long. 
Finally, Douglas determined that no further thermoregulatory 
advantage could be gained by wings longer than 10 millimeters 
on a 15-millimeter body. 

Kingsolver and Koehl performed a host of elaborate and ele- 
gant experiments to support a thermoregulatory origin of insect 
proto-wings. As with so many examples of excellent science pro- 
ducing clear and interesting outcomes, the results can be summa- 
rized briefly and cleanly. 

Kingsolver and Koehl begin by tabulating all the aerodynamic 
hypotheses usually presented in the literature as purely verbal 
speculations. They arrange these proposals of functional conti- 
nuity (the explanations that do not follow Darwin’s solution of 
Mivart’s dilemma) into three basic categories: proto-wings for 
gliding (aerofoils for steady-state motion), for parachuting (slow- 
ing the rate of descent in a falling insect), and attitude stability 
(helping an insect to land right side up). They then transcended 
the purely verbal tradition by developing aerodynamic equations 
for exactly how proto-wings should help an insect under these 
three hypotheses of continuity in adaptation (increasing the lift/ 
drag ratio as the major boost to gliding, increasing drag to slow 
the descent rate in parachuting, measuring the moment about 
the body axis produced by wings for the hypothesis of attitude 

They then constructed insect models made of wire, epoxy, and 
other appropriate materials to match the sizes and body shapes of 
flying and nonflying forms among early insect fossils. To these 
models, they attached wings (made of copper wire enclosing thin, 
plastic membranes) of various lengths and measured the actual 


aerodynamic effects for properties predicted by various hypothe- 
ses of functional continuity. The results of many experiments in 
wind tunnels are consistent and consonant: Aerodynamic bene- 
fits begin for wings above a certain size, and they increase as 
wings get larger. But at the small sizes of insect proto-wings, 
aerodynamic advantages are absent or insignificant and do not 
increase with growing wing length. These results are indepen- 
dent of body shape, wind velocity, presence or placement of legs, 
and mounting position of wings. In other words, large wings 
work well and larger wings work better — but small wings (at the 
undoubted sizes of Mivart’s troubling incipient stages) provide 
no aerodynamic edge. 

Kingsolver and Koehl then tested their models for ther- 
moregulatory effects, constructing wings from two materials with 
different thermal conductivities (construction paper and alumi- 
num foil) and measuring the increased temperature of bodies 
supplied with wings of various lengths versus wingless models. 
They achieved results symmetrically opposite to the aerodynamic 
experiments. For thermoregulation, wings work well at the small- 
est sizes, with benefits increasing as the wing grows. However, 
beyond a measured length, further increase of the wing confers 
no additional effect. Kingsolver and Koehl conclude: 

At any body size, there is a relative wing length above which 

there is no additional thermal effect, and below which there 

is no significant aerodynamic effect. 

The accompanying chart illustrates these combined results. Note 
how the thermoregulatory effect of excess body temperature due 
to wings (solid line) increases rapidly at small wing sizes but not 
at all above an intermediate wing length. Conversely, the aerody- 
namic effect of lift/ drag ratio does not increase at all until inter- 
mediate wing length, but grows rapidly thereafter. 

We could not hope for a more elegant experimental confirma- 
tion of Darwin’s solution to Mivart’s challenge. Kingsolver and 
Koehl have actually measured the functional shift by showing that 
incipient wings aid thermoregulation but provide no aerody- 
namic benefit — while larger wings provide no further ther- 
moregulatory oomph but initiate aerodynamic advantage and 
increase the benefits steadily thereafter. The crucial intermediate 


The Evolution of Insect Wings 

The thermoregulatory (upper curve) and aerodynamic (lower curve) 
advantages for increasing wing length in insects. Note that thermody- 
namic benefits accrue rapidly when the wing is very small (too small for 
flight), but scarcely increase at all for wings of larger size. Aerodynamic 
advantages, on the other hand, are insignificant for small size, but in- 
crease rapidly at larger wing dimensions, just as the thermodynamic 
benefits cease, ben gamit. adapted from joe i emonnier. courtesy of 


wing length, where thermoregulatory gain ceases and aerody- 
namic benefits begin, represents a domain of functional shift, as 
aerodynamic advantages pick up the relay from waning ther- 
moregulation to continue the evolutionary race to increasing 
wing size. 

But what might push an insect across the transition? Why reach 
this crucial domain at all? If wings originally worked primarily for 
thermoregulation, why not just stop as the length of maximum 
benefit approached? Here, Kingsolver and Koehl present an in- 
teresting speculation based on another aspect of their data. They 
found that the domain of transition between thermal and aerial 
effects varied systematically with body size: The larger the body, 


the sooner the transition (in terms of relative wing length). For a 
body 2 centimeters long, the transition occurred with wings 40 to 
60 percent of body length; but a 10-centimeter body switches to 
aerodynamic advantage at only 10 percent of body length. 

Now suppose that incipient ancestral wings worked primarily 
for thermoregulation and had reached a stable, optimum size for 
greatest benefit. Natural selection would not favor larger wings 
and a transition to the available domain of aerodynamic advan- 
tage. But if body size increased for other reasons, an insect might 
reach the realm of aerial effects simply by growing larger, without 
any accompanying change of body shape or relative wing length. 

We often think, naively, that size itself should make no pro- 
found difference. Why should just more of the same have any 
major effect beyond simple accumulation? Surely, any major im- 
provement or alteration must require an extensive and explicit 
redesign, a complex reordering of parts with invention of new 

Nature does not always match our faulty intuitions. Complex 
objects often display the interesting and paradoxical property of 
major effect for apparently trifling input. Internal complexity can 
translate a simple quantitative change into a wondrous alteration 
of quality. Perhaps that greatest and most effective of all evolu- 
tionary inventions, the origin of human consciousness, required 
little more than an increase of brain power to a level where inter- 
nal connections became rich and varied enough to force this sem- 
inal transition. The story may be much more complex, but we 
have no proof that it must be. 

Voltaire quipped that “God is always for the big battalions.” 
More is not always better, but more can be very different. 


and Fallacies 

The Case of the Creeping 
Fox Terrier Clone 

when asta the fox terrier exhumed the body of the 
Thin Man, his delightfully tipsy detective master, Nick Charles, 
exclaimed, “You’re not a terrier; you’re a police dog” (The Thin 
Man , MGM 1934 original with William Powell and Myrna Loy). 
May I now generalize for Asta’s breed in the case of the telltale 

The wisdom of our culture abounds with mottoes that instruct 
us to acknowledge the faults within ourselves before we criticize 
the failings of others. These words range from cliches about pots 
and kettles to various sayings of Jesus: “And why beholdest thou 
the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam 
that is in thine own eye?” (Luke 6:41); “He that is without sin 
among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). I shall 
follow this wisdom by exposing my own profession in trying to 
express what I find so desperately wrong about the basic tool of 
American teaching, the textbook. 

In March 1987, I spent several hours in the exhibit hall of the 
National Science Teachers Association convention in Washing- 
ton, D.C. There I made an informal, but reasonably complete, 
survey of evolution as treated (if at all) in major high-school sci- 
ence textbooks. I did find some evidence of adulteration, pus- 
syfooting, and other forms of capitulation to creationist pressure. 
One book, Life Science, by L. K. Bierer, K. F. Liem, and E. P. 
Silberstein (Heath, 1987), in an accommodation that at least 
makes you laugh while you weep for lost integrity in education, 
qualifies every statement about the ages of fossils — usually in the 
most barbarous of English constructions, the passive infinitive. 



We discover that trilobites are “believed to have lived 500-600 
million years ago,” while frozen mammoths are “thought to have 
roamed the tundra 22,000 years ago.” But of one poor bird, we 
learn with terrible finality, “There are no more dodoes living 
today.” Their extinction occurred within the bounds of biblical 
literalism and need not be hedged. 

But I was surprised and pleased to note that most books con- 
tained material at reasonable length about evolution, and with no 
explicit signs of tampering to appease creationists. Sins imposed 
by others were minimal. But I then found the beam in our own 
eye and became, if anything, more distressed than by any capitu- 
lation to the yahoos. The problem does not lie in what others are 
doing to us, but in what we are doing to ourselves. In book after 
book, the evolution section is virtually cloned. Almost all authors 
treat the same topics, usually in the same sequence, and often 
with illustrations changed only enough to avoid suits for plagia- 
rism. Obviously, authors of textbooks are copying material on a 
massive scale and passing along to students an ill-considered and 
virtually Xeroxed version with a rationale lost in the mists of time. 

Just two months after making this depressing observation, I 
read Diane B. Paul’s fascinating article “The Nine Lives of Dis- 
credited Data” (The Sciences, May 1987). Paul analyzed the sec- 
tions on heritability of IQ from twenty-eight textbooks on 
introductory genetics published between 1978 and 1984. She 
paid particular attention to their treatment of Sir Cyril Burt’s data 
on identical twins raised separately. We now know that these 
“studies” represent one of the most striking cases of fraud in 
twentieth-century science — for Burt invented both data and co- 
workers. His sad story had been well publicized, and all authors 
of texts published since 1978 surely knew that Burt’s data had 
been discredited and could not be used. Several texts even in- 
cluded discussions of the Burt scandal as a warning about caution 
and scrutiny in science. 

But Paul then found that nearly half these books continued to 
cite and use Burt’s data, probably unconsciously. Of nineteen 
textbooks that devoted more than a paragraph to the subject of 
genetics and IQ_, eleven based their conclusions about high heri- 
tability on a review article published in Science in 1963. This re- 
view featured a figure that ten of these textbooks reproduced 
either directly or in slightly altered and simplified form. This 


figure includes, as a prominent feature, the results of Sir Cyril 
Burt (not yet suspect in 1963). We must conclude that the au- 
thors of these texts either had not read the 1963 article carefully 
or had not consulted it at all. Paul infers (correctly, I am sure) that 
this carelessness arises because authors of textbooks copy from 
other texts and often do not read original sources. How else to 
explain the several books that discussed the Burt scandal explic- 
itly and then, unbeknownst to their authors, used the same dis- 
credited data in a figure? 

Paul argues that the increasing commercialization of textbooks 
has engendered this virtual cloning of contents. Textbook pub- 
lishing is a big business, replete with market surveys, fancy art 
programs, and subsidiary materials in the form of slide sets, 
teachers’ guides, even test-making and grading services. The ac- 
tual text of the book can become secondary and standardized; 
any departure from a conventional set of topics could derail an 
entire industry of supporting materials. Teachers are also locked 
into a largely set curriculum based on this flood of accoutre- 
ments. Paul concludes: “Today’s textbooks are thicker, slicker, 
more elaborate, and more expensive than they used to be. They 
are also more alike. Indeed, many are virtual clones, both stylistic 
and substantive, of a market leader.” 

The marketplace rules. Most publishing houses are now owned 
by conglomerates — CBS, Raytheon, and Coca-Cola among 
them — with managers who never raise their eyes from the finan- 
cial bottom fine, know little or nothing about books, and view the 
publishing arm of their diversified empire as but one more item 
for the ultimate balance. I received a dramatic reminder of this 
trend last week when I looked at the back cover of my score for 
Mozart’s Coronation Mass, now under rehearsal in my chorus. It 
read: “Kalmus Score. Belwin Mills Publishing Company, dis- 
tributed by Columbia Pictures Publication, a unit of the Coca- 
Cola Company.” I don’t say that Bill Cosby or Michael Jackson or 
whoever advertises the stuff doesn’t like Mozart; I merely suspect 
that Don Giovanni can’t be high on the executive agenda when 
the big boys must worry about such really important issues as 
whether or not to market Cherry Coke (a resounding “yes” vote 
from this old New York soda fountain junkie). 

Paul quotes a leading industry analyst from the 1984 Book Pub- 
lishing Annual. Future textbooks, the analyst argues, will have 


“more elaborate designs and greater use of color. . . . The ancil- 
lary packages will become more comprehensive. . . . New, more 
aggressive marketing plans will be needed just to maintain a com- 
pany’s position. The quality of marketing will make the differ- 
ence.” Do note the conspicuous absence of any mention 
whatsoever about the quality of the text itself. 

Paul is obviously correct in arguing that this tendency to clon- 
ing has accelerated remarkably as concerns of the market over- 
whelm scholarly criteria in the composition of textbooks. But I 
believe that the basic tendency has always been present and has a 
human as well as a corporate face. Independent thought has al- 
ways been more difficult than borrowing, and authors of text- 
books have almost always taken the easier way out. Of course I 
have no objection to the similar recording of information by text- 
books. No author can know all the byways of a profession, and all 
must therefore rely on written sources for areas not enlightened 
by personal expertise. I speak instead of the thoughtless, sense- 
less, and often false copying of phrase, anecdote, style of argu- 
ment, and sequence of topics that perpetuates itself by degraded 
repetition from text to text and thereby loses its anchor in nature. 

1 present an example that may seem tiny and peripheral in 
import. Nevertheless, and perhaps paradoxically, such cases pro- 
vide our best evidence for thoughtless copying. When a truly 
important and well-known fact graces several texts in the same 
form, we cannot know whether it has been copied from previous 
sources or independently extracted from any expert’s general 
knowledge. But when a quirky little senseless item attains the 
frequency of the proverbial bad penny, copying from text to text 
is the only reasonable interpretation. There is no other source. 
My method is no different from the standard technique of biblio- 
graphic scholars, who establish lineages of texts by tracing errors 
(particularly for documents spread by copyists before the inven- 
tion of printing). 

When textbooks choose to illustrate evolution with an example 
from the fossil record, they almost invariably trot out that great- 
est warhorse among case studies — the history of horses them- 
selves (see the next essay in this section for fallacies of the usual 
tale). The standard story begins with an animal informally called 
Eohippus (the dawn horse), or more properly, Hyracotherium. Since 
evolutionary increase in size is a major component of the tradi- 


tional tale, all texts report the diminutive stature of ancestral 
Hyracotherium. A few give actual estimates or measurements, but 
most rely upon a simile with some modern organism. For years, I 
have been much amused (and mildly bothered) that the great 
majority of texts report Hyracotherium as “like a fox-terrier” in 
size. I was jolted into action when I found myself writing the same 
line, and then stopped. “Wait a minute,” said my inner voice, 
“beyond some vague memories of Asta last time I watched a Thin 
Man movie, I haven’t the slightest idea what a fox terrier is. I can’t 
believe that the community of textbook authors includes only 
dog fanciers — so if I don't know, I’ll bet most of them don’t ei- 
ther.” Clearly, the classic line has been copied from text to text. 
Where did it begin? What has been its history? Is the statement 
even correct? 

My immediate spur to action came from a most welcome and 
unexpected source. I published a parenthetical remark about the 
fox terrier issue (see Essay 1 1), ending with a serious point: “I 
also wonder w hat the textbook tradition of endless and thought- 
less copying has done to retard the spread of original ideas.” 

I have, over the years, maintained a correspondence about our 
favorite common subject with Roger Angell of the New Yorker, 
who is, among other things, the greatest baseball writer ever. I 
assumed that his letter of early April would be a scouting report 
for the beginning of a new season. But I found that Roger Angell 
is a man of even more dimensions than I had realized; he is also a 
fox terrier fancier. He had read my parenthetical comment and 
wrote, “I am Riled with excitement and trepidation at the pros- 
pect of writing you a letter about science instead of baseball.” 

Angell went on to suggest a fascinating and plausible explana- 
tion for the origin of the fox terrier simile (no excuse, of course, 
for its later cloning). Fox terriers were bred “to dig out foxes 
from their burrows, when a fox had gone to earth during a tradi- 
tional British hunt.” Apparently, generations of fox-hunting gen- 
tlemen selected fox terriers not only for their functional role in 
the hunt but also under a breeder’s artifice to make them look as 
much like horses as possible. Angell continues, “The dogs rode 
up on the saddle during the hunt, and it was a pretty conceit for 
the owner-horseman to appear to put down a little simulacrum of 
a horse when the pack of hounds and the pink-coated throng had 
arrived at an earth where the animal was to do his work.” He also 


pointed out that fox terriers tend to develop varied patches of 
color on a basically white coat and that a “saddle” along the back 
is “considered desirable and handsome.” Thus, Angell proposed 
his solution: “Wouldn’t it seem possible that some early horse 
geologist, in casting about for the right size animal to fit his 
cliche-to-be, might have settled, quite unconsciously, on a breed 
of dog that fitted the specifications in looks as well as size?” 

This interesting conjecture led me to devise the following, 
loosely controlled experiment. I asked David Backus, my re- 
search assistant, to record every simile for Hyracotherium that he 
could find in the secondary literature of texts and popular books 
during more than a century since O. C. Marsh first recognized 
this animal as a “dawn horse.” We would then use these patterns 
in attempting to locate original sources for favored similes in the 
primary literature of vertebrate paleontology. We consulted the 
books in my personal library as a sample, and compiled a total of 
eighty-six descriptions. The story turns out to be much more 
ascertainable and revealing than I had imagined. 

The tradition of simile begins at the very beginning. Richard 
Owen, the great British anatomist and paleontologist, described 
the genus Hyracothenum in 1841. He did not recognize its rela- 
tionship with horses (he considered this animal, as his chosen 
name implies, to be a possible relative of hyraxes, a small group 
of Afro-Asian mammals, the “coneys” of the Bible). In this origi- 
nal article, Owen likened his fossil to a hare in one passage and to 
something between a hog and a hyrax in another. Owen’s simile 
plays no role in later history because other traditions of compari- 
son had been long established before scientists realized that 
Owen’s older discovery represented the same animal that Marsh 
later named Eohippus. (Hence, under the rules of taxonomy, 
Owen's inappropriate and uneuphonious name takes unfortu- 
nate precedence over Marsh’s lovely Eohippus — see Essay 5 on 
the rules of naming.) 

The modern story begins with Marsh’s description of the earli- 
est horses in 1874. Marsh pressed “go” on the simile machine by 
writing, “This species was about as large as a fox.” He also de- 
scribed the larger descendant Miohippus as sheeplike in size. 

Throughout the nineteenth century all sources that we have 
found (eight references, including such major figures as Joseph 
Le Conte, Archibald Geikie, and even Marsh’s bitter enemy E. D. 


The rise to dominance of fox terriers as similes for the 
size of the earliest horses. Top graph: Increasing dom- 
ination of dogs over foxes through time. Lower graph: 
Increase in percentage of fox terrier references among 
sources citing dogs as their simile, iromie weeraman- 



Cope) copy Marsh’s favored simile — they all describe Eohippus as 
fox-sized. We are confident that Marsh’s original description is 
the source because most references also repeat his statement that 
Miohippus is the size of a sheep. How, then, did fox terriers re- 
place their prey? 

The first decade of our century ushered in a mighty Darwinian 
competition among three alternatives and led to the final triumph 
of fox terriers. By 1910, three similes were battling for survival. 
Marsh’s original fox suffered greatly from competition, but 
managed to retain a share of the market at about 25 percent (five 
of twenty citations between 1900 and 1925 in our sample) — a 
frequency that has been maintained ever since (see accompany- 
ing figure). Competition came from two stiff sources, however — 
both from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

First, in 1903, W. D. Matthew, vertebrate paleontologist at the 
Museum, published his famous pamphlet The Evolution of the Horse 
(it remained in print for fifty years, and was still being sold at the 
Museum shop when I was a child). Matthew wrote: “The earliest 
known ancestors of the horse were small animals not larger than 
the domestic cat.” Several secondary sources picked up Mat- 
thew’s simile during this quarter century (also five of twenty ref- 
erences between 1900 and 1925), but felines have since faded 
(only one of fifteen references since 1975), and I do not know 

Second, the three-way carnivorous competition of vulpine, fe- 
line, and canine began in earnest when man’s best friend made 
his belated appearance in 1904 under the sponsorship of Mat- 
thew’s boss, American Museum president and eminent verte- 
brate paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn. Remember that no 
nineteenth-century source (known to us) had advocated a canine 
simile, so Osborn’s late entry suffered a temporal handicap. But 
Osborn was as commanding (and enigmatic) a figure as American 
natural history has ever produced (see Essay 29) — a powerful 
patrician in science and politics, imperious but kind, prolific and 
pompous, crusader for natural history and for other causes of 
opposite merit (Osborn wrote, for example, a glowing preface to 
the most influential tract of American scientific racism, The Pass- 
ing of the Great Race, by his friend Madison Grant). 

In the Century Magazine for November 1904, Osborn published 
a popular article, “The Evolution of the Horse in America.” 


(Given Osborn’s almost obsessively prolific spate of publications, 
we would not be surprised if we have missed an earlier citation.) 
His first statement about Eohippus introduces the comparison 
that would later win the competition: 

We may imagine the earliest herds of horses in the Lower 
Eocene {Eohippus, or “dawn horse” stage) as resembling a 
lot of small fox-terriers in size. ... As in the terrier, the wrist 
(knee) was near the ground, the hand was still short, ter- 
minating in four hoofs, with a part of the fifth toe (thumb) 
dangling at the side. 

Osborn provides no rationale for his choice of breeds. Perhaps 
he simply carried Marsh’s old fox comparison unconsciously in 
his head and chose the dog most similar in name to the former 
standard. Perhaps Roger Angell’s conjecture is correct. Osborn 
certainly came from a social set that knew about fox hunting. 
Moreover, as the quotation indicates, Osborn extended the 
similarity of Eohippus and fox terrier beyond mere size to other 
horselike attributes of this canine breed (although, in other 
sources, Osborn treated the whippet as even more horselike, and 
even mounted a whippet’s skeleton for an explicit comparison 
with Eohippus). Roger Angell described his fox terrier to me: 
“The back is long and straight, the tail is heldjauntily upward like 
a trotter's, the nose is elongated and equine, and the forelegs are 
strikingly thin and straight. In motion, the dog comes down on 
these forelegs in a rapid and distinctive, stiff, flashy style, and the 
dog appears to walk on his tiptoes — on hooves, that is.” 

In any case, we can trace the steady rise to domination of dog 
similes in general, and fox terriers in particular, ever since. Dogs 
reached nearly 50 percent of citations (nine of twenty) between 
1900 and 1925, but have now risen to 60 percent (nine of fifteen) 
since 1975. Meanwhile, the percentage of fox terrier citations 
among dog similes had also climbed steadily, from one-third 
(three of nine) between 1900 and 1925 to one-half (eight of six- 
teen) between 1925 and 1975, to two-thirds (six of nine) since 
1975. Osborn’s simile has been victorious. 

Copying is the only credible source for these shifts of popular- 
ity — first from experts; then from other secondary sources. Shifts 
in fashion cannot be recording independent insights based on 


observation of specimens. Eohippus could not, by itself, say “fox” 
to every nineteenth-century observer and “dog” to most twen- 
tieth-century writers. Nor can I believe that two-thirds of all dog- 
inclined modern writers would independently say, “Aha, fox 
terrier” when contemplating the dawn horse. The breed is no 
longer so popular, and I suspect that most writers, like me, have 
only the vaguest impression about fox terriers when they copy 
the venerable simile. 

In fact, we can trace the rise to dominance of fox terriers in our 
references. The first post-Osborn citation that we can find (Er- 
nest Ingersoll, The Life of Animals, MacMillan, 1906) credits Os- 
born explicitly as author of the comparison with fox terriers. 
Thereafter, no one cites the original, and I assume that the pro- 
cess of text copying text had begun. 

Two processes combined to secure the domination of fox terri- 
ers. First, experts began to line up behind Osborn’s choice. The 
great vertebrate paleontologist W. B. Scott, for example, stood in 
loyal opposition in 1913, 1919, and 1929 when he cited both 
alternatives offox and cat. But by 1937, he had switched: "Hyraco- 
therium was a little animal about the size of a fox-terrier, but 
horse-like in all parts.” Second, dogs became firmly ensconced in 
major textbooks. Both leading American geology textbooks of 
the early twentieth century (Chamberlin and Salisbury, 1909 edi- 
tion, and Pirsson and Schuchert, 1924 edition) opt for canines, as 
does Hegner’s zoology text (1912) and W. Maxwell Read’s fine 
children’s book (a mainstay of my youth) The Earth for Sam (1930 

Fox terriers have only firmed up their position ever since. Ex- 
perts cite this simile, as in A. S. Romer’s leading text. Vertebrate 
Paleontology (3d edition, 1966): “ 'Eohippus' was a small form, 
some specimens no larger than a fox terrier.” They have also 
entered the two leading high-school texts: (1) Otto and Towle 
(descendant of Moon, Mann, and Otto, the dominant text for 
most of the past fifty years): “This horse is called Eohippus. It had 
four toes and was about the size of a fox-terrier” (1977 edition); 
(2) the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Blue Edition (1968): 
“The fossil of a small four-toed animal about the size of a fox- 
terrier was found preserved in layers of rock.” College texts also 
comply. W. T. Keeton, in his Biological Science, the Hertz of the 
profession, writes (1980 edition): “It was a small animal, only 


about the size of a fox-terrier.” Baker and Allen’s The Study of 
Biology, a strong Avis, agrees (1982 edition): “This small animal 
Eohippus was not much bigger than a fox-terrier.” 

You may care little for dawn horses or fox terriers and might 
feel that I have made much of nothing in this essay. But I cite the 
case of the creeping fox terrier clone not for itself, but rather as a 
particularly clear example of a pervasive and serious disease — the 
debasement of our textbooks, the basic tool of written education, 
by endless, thoughtless copying. 

My younger son started high school last month. For a biology 
text, he is using the 4th edition of Biology: Living Systems, by R. F. 
Oram, with consultants P. J. Hummer and R. C. Smoot (Charles 
E. Merrill, 1983, but listed on the title page, following our mod- 
ern reality of conglomeration, as a Bell and Howell Company). 1 
was sad and angered to find several disgraceful passages of capit- 
ulation to creationist pressure. Page one of the chapter on evolu- 
tion proclaims in a blue sidebar: “The theory of evolution is the 
most widely accepted scientific explanation of the origin of life 
and changes in living things. You may wish to investigate other 
theories.” Similar invitations are not issued for any other well- 
established theory. Students are not told that “most folks accept 
gravitation, but you might want to check out levitation” or that 
“most people view the earth as a sphere, but you might want to 
consider the possibility of a plane.” When the text reaches 
human history, it doesn’t even grant majority status to our evolu- 
tionary consensus: “Humans are indeed unique, but because they 
are also organisms, many scientists believe that humans have an 
evolutionary history.” 

Yet, as I argued at the outset, I find these compromises to 
outside pressure, disgraceful though they be, less serious than 
the internal disease of cloning from text to text. There is virtually 
only one chapter on evolution in all high-school biology texts, 
copied and degraded, then copied and degraded again. My son’s 
book is no exception. T his chapter begins with a discussion of 
Lamarck and the inheritance of acquired characters. It then 
moves to Darwin and natural selection and follows this basic con- 
trast with a picture of a giraffe and a disquisition of Lamarckian 
and Darwinian explanations for long necks. A bit later, we reach 
industrial melanism in moths and dawn horses of you-know-what 


What is the point of all this? I could understand this develop- 
ment if Lamarckism were a folk notion that must be dispelled 
before introducing Darwin, or if Lamarck were a household 
name. But I will lay 100 to 1 that few high-school students have 
ever heard of Lamarck. Why begin teaching evolution by ex- 
plicating a false theory that is causing no confusion? False no- 
tions are often wonderful tools in pedagogy, but not when they 
are unknown, are provoking no trouble, and make the grasp of an 
accepted theory more difficult. I would not teach more sophis- 
ticated college students this way; I simply can’t believe that this 
sequence works in high school. I can only conclude that someone 
once wrote the material this way for a reason lost in the mists of 
time, and that authors of textbooks have been dutifully copying 
“Lamarck . . . Darwin . . . giraffe necks” ever since. 

(The giraffe necks, by the way, make even less sense. This ven- 
erable example rests upon no data at all for the superiority of 
Darwinian explanation. Lamarck offered no evidence for his in- 
terpretation and only introduced the case in a few lines of specu- 
lation. We have no proof that the long neck evolved by natural 
selection for eating leaves at the tops of acacia trees. We only 
prefer this explanation because it matches current orthodoxy. 
Giraffes do munch the topmost leaves, and this habit obviously 
helps them to thrive, but who knows how or why their necks 
elongated? They may have lengthened for other reasons and 
then been fortuitously suited for acacia leaves.) 

If textbook cloning represented the discovery of a true educa- 
tional optimum, and its further honing and propagation, then 1 
would not object. But all evidence — from my little story of fox 
terriers to the larger issue of a senseless but nearly universal 
sequence of Lamarck, Darwin, and giraffe necks — indicates that 
cloning bears an opposite and discouraging message. It is the 
easy way out, a substitute for thinking and striving to improve. 
Somehow I must believe — for it is essential to my notion of schol- 
arship — that good teaching requires fresh thought and genuine 
excitement, and that rote copying can only indicate boredom and 
slipshod practice. A carelessly cloned work will not excite stu- 
dents, however pretty the pictures. As an antidote, we need only 
the most basic virtue of integrity — not only the usual, figurative 
meaning of honorable practice but the less familiar, literal defi- 
nition of wholeness. We will not have great texts if authors can- 


not shape content but must serve a commercial master as one cog 
in an ultimately powerless consortium with other packagers. 

To end with a simpler point amid all this tendentiousness and 
generality: Thoughtlessly cloned “eternal verities” are often 
false. The latest estimate I have seen for the body size of Hyraco- 
therium (MacFadden, 1986), challenging previous reconstruc- 
tions congenial with the standard simile of much smaller 
fox-terriers, cites a weight of some twenty-five kilograms, or 
fifty-five pounds. 

Lassie come home! 


Life’s Little Joke 

i still don’t understand why a raven is like a writ- 
ing desk, but I do know what binds Hernando Cortes and 
Thomas Henry Huxley together. 

On February 18, 1519, Cortes set sail for Mexico with about 
600 men and, perhaps more important, 16 horses. Two years 
later, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan lay in ruins, and one of the 
world's great civilizations had perished. 

Cortes’s victory has always seemed puzzling, even to historians 
of an earlier age who did not doubt the intrinsic superiority of 
Spanish blood and Christian convictions. William H. Prescott, 
master of this tradition, continually emphasizes Cortes’s diplo- 
matic skill in making alliances to divide and conquer — and his 
good fortune in despoiling Mexico during a period of marked 
internal dissension among the Aztecs and their vassals. (Prescott 
published his History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843; it remains 
among the most exciting and literate books ever written.) 

Prescott also recognized Cortes’s two “obvious advantages on 
the score of weapons” — one inanimate and one animate. A gun is 
formidable enough against an obsidian blade, but consider the 
additional impact of surprise when your opponent has never seen 
a firearm. Cortes’s cavalry, a mere handful of horses and their 
riders, caused even more terror and despair, for the Aztecs, as 
Prescott wrote, 

had no large domesticated animals, and were unacquainted 
with any beast of burden. Their imaginations were bewil- 
dered when they beheld the strange apparition of the horse 



and his rider moving in unison and obedient to one im- 
pulse, as if possessed of a common nature; and as they saw 
the terrible animal, with “his neck clothed in thunder,” 
bearing down their squadrons and trampling them in the 
dust, no wonder they should have regarded him with the 
mysterious terror felt for a supernatural being. 

On the same date, February 18, in 1870, Thomas Henry Hux- 
ley gave his annual address as president of the Geological Society 
of London and staked his celebrated claim that Darwin’s ideal 
evidence for evolution had finally been uncovered in the fossil 
record of horses — a sequence of continuous transformation, 
properly arrayed in temporal order: 

It is easy to accumulate probabilities— hard to make out 
some particular case, in such a way that it will stand rigorous 
criticism. After much search, however, I think that such a 
case is to be made out in favor of the pedigree of horses. 

Huxley delineated the famous trends to fewer toes and higher- 
crowned teeth that we all recognize in this enduring classic 
among evolutionary case histories. Huxley viewed this lineage as 
a European affair, proceeding from fully three-toed Anchitherium, 
to Hippanon with side toes “reduced to mere dew-claws [that] do 
not touch the ground,” to modern Equus, where, “finally, the 
crowns of the grinding-teeth become longer. . . . The phalanges 
of the two outer toes in each foot disappear, their metacarpal and 
metatarsal bones being left as the ‘splints.’ ” 

In Cat’s Cradle , Kurt Vonnegut speaks of the subtle ties that can 
bind people across worlds and centuries into aggregations 
forged by commonalities so strange that they must be meaning- 
ful. Cortes and Huxley must belong to the same karass (Von- 
negut’s excellent word for these associations)— for they both, on 
the same date, unfairly debased America with the noblest of ani- 
mals. Huxley was wrong and Cortes, by consequence, was ever so 

Horses evolved in America, through a continuity that extends 
unbroken across 60 million years. Several times during this his- 
tory, different branches migrated to Europe, where Huxley ar- 
ranged three (and later four) separate incursions as a false 


continuity. But horses then died in America at the dawn of human 
history in our hemisphere, leaving the last European migration as 
a source of recolonization by conquest. Huxley’s error became 
Montezuma’s sorrow, as an animal more American than Babe 
Ruth or apple pie came home to destroy her greatest civilization. 
(Montezuma’s revenge would come later, and by another route.) 

During our centennial year of 1876, Huxley visited America to 
deliver the principal address for the founding of Johns Hopkins 
University. He stopped first at Yale to consult the eminent pa- 
leontologist Othniel C. Marsh. Marsh, ever gracious, offered 
Huxley an architectural tour of the campus, but Huxley had come 
for a purpose and would not be delayed. He pointed to the build- 
ings and said to Marsh: “Show me what you have got inside them; 

I can see plenty of bricks and mortar in my own country.” Huxley 
was neither philistine nor troglodyte; he was simply eager to 
study some particular fossils: Marsh’s collection of horses. 

Two years earlier. Marsh had published his phylogeny of 
American horses and identified our continent as the center stage, 
while relegating Huxley’s European sequence to a periphery of 
discontinuous migration. Marsh began with a veiled and modest 
criticism (American Journal of Science, 1874): 

Huxley has traced successfully the later genealogy of the 
horse through European extinct forms, but the line in 
America was probably a more direct one, and the record is 
more complete. 

Later, he stated more baldly (p. 258): “The line of descent 
appears to have been direct, and the remains now known supply 
every important intermediate form.” 

Marsh had assembled an immense collection from the Ameri- 
can West (prompted largely by a race for priority in his bitter feud 
with Edwin D. Cope — see Essay 5 for another consequence of this 
feud!). For every query, every objection that Huxley raised, 
Marsh produced a specimen. Leonard Huxley describes the 
scene in his biography of his father: 

At each inquiry, whether he had a specimen to illustrate 
such and such a point or to exemplify a transition from 
earlier and less specialized forms to later and more special- 


•zed ones. Professor Marsh would simply turn to his assist- 
ant and bid him fetch box number so and so, until Huxley 
turned upon him and said, “I believe you are a magician; 
whatever I want, you just conjure it up.” 

Years before, T. H. Huxley had coined a motto; now he 
meant to live by it: “Sit down before fact as a little child, be 
prepared to give up every preconceived notion.” He capitulated 
to Marsh’s theory of an American venue. Marsh, with growing 
pleasure and retreating modesty, reported his impression of 
personal triumph: 

He [Huxley] then informed me that this was new to him, 
and that my facts demonstrated the evolution of the horse 
beyond question, and for the first time indicated the direct 
line of descent of an existing animal. With the generosity of 
true greatness, he gave up his own opinions in the face of 
new truth and took my conclusions. 

A few days later, Huxley was, if anything, more convinced. He 
wrote to Marsh from Newport, his next stop: “The more I think 
of it the more clear it is that your great work is the settlement of 
the pedigree of the horse.” But Huxley was scheduled to lecture 
on the evolution of horses less than a month later in New York. 
As he traveled about eastern America, Huxley rewrote his lecture 
from scratch. He also enlisted Marsh’s aid in preparing a chart 
that would show the new evidence to his New York audience in 
pictorial form. Marsh responded with one of the most famous 
illustrations in the history of paleontology — the first pictorial 
pedigree of the horse. 

Scholars are trained to analyze words. But primates are visual 
animals, and the key to concepts and their history often lies in 
iconography. Scientific illustrations are not frills or summaries; 
they are foci for modes of thought. The evolution of the horse— 
both in textbook charts and museum exhibits — has a standard 
iconography. Marsh began this traditional display in his illustra- 
tion for Huxley. In so doing, he also initiated an error that cap- 
tures pictorially the most common of all misconceptions about 
the shape and pattern of evolutionary change. 

Errors in science are diverse enough to demand a taxonomy of 


The celebrated original figure drawn by O.C. Marsh for T.H. Huxley’s 
New York lecture on the evolution of horses. This version appeared in 
an article by Marsh in the American Journal of Science for 1879. neg. no. 


life’s LITTLE JOKE | 173 

categories. Some make me angry, particularly those that arise 
from social prejudice, masquerade as objectively determined 
truth, and directly limit the lives of those caught in their thrall 
(scientific justifications for racism and sexism, as obvious exam- 
ples). Others make me sad because honest effort ran headlong 
into unresolvable complexities of nature. Still others, as errors of 
logic that should not have occurred, bloat my already extended 
ego when I discover them. But f reserve a special place in per- 
verse affection for a small class of precious ironies — errors that 
pass nature through a filter of expectation and reach a particular 
conclusion only because nature really works in precisely the op- 
posite way. This result, I know, sounds both peculiar and un- 
likely, but bear with me for the premier example of life’s little 
joke — as displayed in conventional iconography (and interpreta- 
tion) for the most famous case study of all, the evolution of the 

In his original 1874 article, Marsh recognized the three trends 
that define our traditional view of old dobbin’s genealogy: in- 
crease in size, decrease in the number of toes (with the hoof of 
modern horses made from a single digit, surrounded by two ves- 
tigial splints as remnants of side toes), and increase in the height 
and complexity of grinding teeth. (I am not treating the adaptive 
significance of these changes here, but wish to record the conven- 
tional explanation for the major environmental impetus behind 
trends in locomotion and dentition: a shift from browsing on lush 
lowland vegetation to grazing of newly evolved grasses upon 
drier plains. Tough grasses with less food value require consider- 
ably more dental effort.) 

Marsh’s famous chart, drawn for Huxley, depicts these trends 
as an ascending series — a ladder of uninterrupted progress to- 
ward one toe and tall, corrugated teeth (by scaling all his speci- 
mens to the same size. Marsh does not show the third “classic” 
trend toward increasing bulk). 

We are all familiar with this traditional picture — the parade of 
horses from little eohippus (properly called Hyracotherium ) , with 
four toes in front and three behind, to Man o’ War. ( Hyracothenum 
is always described as “fox terrier” in size. Such traditions disturb 
and captivate me. I know nothing about fox terriers but have 
dutifully copied this description. I wonder who said it first, and 
why this simile has become so canonical. I also wonder what the 


textbook tradition of endless and thoughtless copying has done 
to retard the spread of original ideas.*) 

In conventional charts and museum displays, the evolution of 
horses looks like a line of schoolchildren all pointed in one direc- 
tion and arrayed in what my primary-school drill instructors 
called “size place” (also stratigraphic order in this case). The 
most familiar of all illustrations, first drawn early in the century 
for the American Museum of Natural History’s pamphlet on the 
evolution of horses, by W. D. Matthew, but reproduced hundreds 
of times since then, shows the whole story: size, toes, and teeth 
arranged in a row by order of appearance in the fossil record. To 
cite just one example of this figure’s influence, George W. 
Hunter reproduced Matthew’s chart as the primary illustration of 


Most widely reproduced of all illustrations showing the evolution of 
horses as a ladder towards progress. Note increase in skull size, decrease 
in the number of toes, and increase in the height of teeth. 1 he skulls are 
also arranged in stratigraphic order. W.D. Matthew used this illustration 
in several publications. This version comes from an article in the Quar- 
terly Review of Biology for 1926. neg. no. 37969. courtesy department of 

•This parenthetical comment inspired Roger Angell’s letter and led directly to 
research and writing of the essay preceding this piece. 

life’s LITTLEJOKE | 175 

evolution in his high-school textbook of 1914, A Civic Biology. 
John Scopes assigned this book to his classes in Tennessee and 
was convicted for teaching its chapters on evolution, as William 
Jennings Bryan issued his last hurrah (see Essay 28): “No more 
repulsive doctrine was ever proclaimed by man . . . may heaven 
defend the youth of our land from [these] impious babblings.” 

But what is so wrong with these evolutionary ladders? Surely 
we can trace an unbroken continuity from Hyracotherium to mod- 
ern horses. Yes, but continuity comes in many more potential 
modes than the lock step of the ladder. Evolutionary genealogies 
are copiously branching bushes — and the history of horses is 
more lush and labyrinthine than most. To be sure, Hyracotherium 
is the base of the trunk (as now known), and Equus is the surviving 
twig. We can, therefore, draw a pathway of connection from a 
common beginning to a lone result. But the lineage of modern 
horses is a twisted and tortuous excursion from one branch to 
another, a path more devious than the road marked by Ariadne’s 
thread from the Minotaur at the center to the edge of our cul- 
ture’s most famous labyrinth. Most important, the path proceeds 
not by continuous transformation but by lateral stepping (with 
geological suddenness when punctuated equilibrium applies, as 
in this lineage, at least as read by yours truly, who must confess 
his bias as coauthor of the theory). 

Each lateral step to a new species follows one path among sev- 
eral alternatives. Each extended lineage becomes a set of deci- 
sions at branching points — only one among hundreds of 
potential routes through the labyrinth of the bush. There is no 
central direction, no preferred exit to this maze — -just a series of 
indirect pathways to every twig that ever graced the periphery of 
the bush. 

As an example of distortions imposed by converting tortuous 
paths through bushes into directed ladders, consider the men 
associated with the two classical iconographies reproduced here. 
When Huxley made his formal capitulation to Marsh’s interpreta- 
tion in print (1880), he extended the ladder of horses as a meta- 
phor for all vertebrates. Speaking of modern reptiles and teleost 
fishes, Huxley wrote (1880, p. 661): “They appear to me to be off 
the main line of evolution — to represent, as it were, side tracks 
starting from certain points of that line.” But teleosts (modern 
bony fishes) are an enormously successful group. They stock the 


world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers and maintain nearly 100 times as 
many species as primates (and more than all mammals com- 
bined). How can we call them “off the main line’’ just because we 

The evolution of horses depicted as at least a modest bush by G.G. 
Simpson in 1951. neg. no. 328907. courtesy department of library 



can trace our own pathway back to a common ancestry with theirs 
more than 300 million years ago? 

W. D. Matthew slipped into an equally biased assessment of 
value because his designation of one pathway as a ladder forced 
an interpretation of all others as diversions. Matthew (1926, p. 
164) designated his ladder as the “direct line of succession,” but 
acknowledged that “there are also a number of side branches, 
more or less closely related.” Three pages later, Matthew adds 
the opprobrium of near indecency to his previous charge of mere 
laterality, as he describes (p. 167) “a number of side branches 
leading up in a similar manner to aberrant specialized Equidae 
now extinct.” But in what way are extinct lineages more special- 
ized than a modern horse or in any sense more peculiar? Their 
historical death is the only possible rationale for a designation of 
aberrancy, but more than 99 percent of all species that ever lived 
are extinct — and disappearance cannot be the biological equiva- 
lent of a scarlet letter. We might as well call modern horses aber- 
rant because, much to Montezuma’s later sorrow, they became 
extinct in the land of their birth. 

Yet we have recognized the bushiness of horse evolution from 
the very beginning. How else did Marsh forestall Huxley but by 
convincing him that his European “genealogy” of horses formed 
a stratigraphic sequence of discontinuous stages, falsely linking 
several side branches that had disappeared without issue? 

As an example of bushiness, and a plug for the value of appro- 
priate metaphors in general, consider the finest book on the evo- 
lution of horses ever written for popular audiences — G. G. 
Simpson’s Horses (1951). Simpson redrew the genealogy of 
horses as a modest bush with no preferred main line. He also 
criticized the conceptual lock imposed by the bias of the ladder 
when he noted that modern one-toed horses are a side branch 
and extinct three-toed creatures the main line (if any center can 
be designated at all). 

As nearly as there is a straight line in horse evolution, it 
culminated and ended with these animals [the three-toed 
anchitheres], which, like their ancestors, were multiple-toed 
browsers. From this point of view, it is the line leading to 
modern horses that was the side branch, even though it 
outlasted the straighter line of horse evolution [p. 130]. 


Yet Simpson, who held a lifelong commitment to the predomi- 
nant role of evolution by transformational change within popula- 
tions rather than by accumulation across numerous events of 
discrete, branching speciation, could not entirely let go of biases 
imposed by the metaphor of the ladder. In one revealing passage, 
he accepts bushiness, but bemoans the complexities thus intro- 
duced, as though they clouded evolution’s essence of transforma- 
tional change: 

Miohippus . . . intergraded with several different descendant 
groups. It is sad that this introduces possible confusion into 
the story, but there is not much point in criticizing nature 
for something that happened some millions of years ago. It 
would also be foolish to try to ignore the complications, 
which did occur and which are a very important part of the 

But these “complications” are not a veil upon the essence of 
lineal descent; they are the primary stuff of evolution itself. 

Moreover, Simpson restricted his bushiness as much as possi- 
ble and retained linearity wherever he could avoid an inference of 
branching. In particular, he proposes the specific and testable 
hypothesis (see his illustration) that the early part of the record — 
the sequence of Hyracotherium — Orohippus — Epihippus — Mesohip- 
pus — Miohippus — Hypohippus — tells a story of linear descent, only 
later interrupted by copious branching among three-toed brows- 
ers: “The line from Eohippus to Hypohippus, for example, exempli- 
fies a fairly continuous phyletic evolution” (p. 217). Simpson 
especially emphasizes the supposedly gradual and continuous 
transformation from Mesohippus to Miohippus near the top of this 

The more progressive horses of the middle Oligocene and 
all the horses of the late Oligocene are placed by conven- 
tion in a separate genus, Miohippus. In fact Mesohippus and 
Miohippus intergrade so perfectly and the differences be- 
tween them are so slight and variable that even experts find 
it difficult, at times nearly impossible, to distinguish them 

life’s little joke | 179 

The enormous expansion of collections since Simpson pro- 
posed this hypothesis has permitted a test by vertebrate paleon- 
tologists Don Prothero and Neil Shubin. Their results falsify 
Simpson’s gradual and linear sequence for the early stages of 
horse evolution and introduce extensive bushiness into this last 
stronghold of the ladder. 

Prothero and Shubin have made four major discoveries in the 
crucial segment of history that Simpson designated as the stron- 
gest case for a gradualistic sequence of lineal transformation — 
the transition from Mesohippus to Miohippus. 

1 . Previous experts were so convinced about the imperceptibly 
gradual transition between these two genera that they declared 
any search for distinguishing characters as vain, and arbitrarily 
drew the division between Mesohippus and Miohippus at a strati- 
graphic boundary. But far richer material available to Prothero 
and Shubin has permitted the identification of characters that 
cleanly distinguish the two genera. (Teeth are the hardest part of 
a vertebrate skeleton and the fossil record of mammals often con- 
tains little else. A technical course in the evolution of mammals is 
largely an exercise in the identification of teeth, and an old pro- 
fessional quip holds that mammalian evolution is the interbreed- 
ing of two sets of teeth to produce some slightly modified 
descendant choppers. Miohippus and Mesohippus do not have dis- 
tinctive dentitions, and previous failure to find a clear separation 
should not surprise us. The new material is rich in skull and limb 
bones.) In particular, Prothero and Shubin found that Miohippus 
develops a distinctive articulation, absent in ancestral Mesohippus, 
between the enlarging third metatarsal (the foot bone of the digit 
that will become the entire hoof of modern horses) and the cu- 
boid bone of the tarsus (ankle) above. 

2. Mesohippus does not turn into Miohippus by insensible de- 
grees of gradual transition. Rather, Miohippus arises by branching 
from a Mesohippus stock that continues to survive long afterward. 
The two genera overlap in time by at least 4 million years. 

3. Each genus is itself a bush of several related species, not a 
rung on a ladder of progress. These species often lived and in- 
teracted in the same area at the same time (as different species of 
zebra do in Africa today). One set of strata in Wyoming, for ex- 
ample, has yielded three species of Mesohippus and two of Miohip- 
pus, all contemporaries. 


4. The species of these bushes tend to arise with geological 
suddenness, and then to persist with little change for long peri- 
ods. Evolutionary change occurs at the branch points themselves, 
and trends are not continuous marches up ladders, but con- 
catenations of increments achieved at nodes of branching on evo- 
lutionary bushes. Of this phenomenon Prothero and Shubin 

There is no evidence of long-term changes within these 
well-defined species [of Mesohippus and Miohippus] through 
time. Instead, they are strikingly static through millions of 
years. Such stasis is apparent in most Neogene [later] 
horses as well, and in Hyracotherium. I’his is contrary to the 
widely-held myth about horse species as gradualistically- 
varying parts of a continuum, with no real distinctions be- 
tween species. Throughout the history of horses, the 
species are well-marked and static over millions of years. At 
high resolution, the gradualistic picture of horse evolution 
becomes a complex bush of overlapping, closely related 

Bushiness now pervades the entire phylogeny of horses. 

We can appreciate this fundamental shift in iconography and 
meaning, but where is the “precious irony” that I promised? 
What is “life’s little joke” of my title? Simply this. The model of 
the ladder is much more than merely wrong. It never could pro- 
vide the promised illustration of evolution progressive and tri- 
umphant — for it could only be applied to unsuccessful lineages. 

Bushes represent the proper topology of evolution. Ladders 
are false abstractions, made by running a steamroller over a laby- 
rinthine pathway that hops from branch to branch through a phy- 
logenetic bush. We cannot force a successful bush of evolution 
into a ladder because we may follow a thousand pathways 
through the maze of twigs, and we cannot find a criterion for 
preferring one route over another. Who ever heard of the evolu- 
tionary trend of rodents or of bats or of antelopes? Yet these are 
the greatest success stories in the history of mammals. Our 
proudest cases do not become our classic illustrations because we 
can draw no ladder of progress through a vigorous bush with 
hundreds of surviving twigs. 

life’s LITTLE JOKE | 181 

But consider the poor horses. Theirs was once a luxuriant 
bush, yet they barely survive today. Only one twig (the genus 
Equus, with horses, zebras, and asses) now carries all the heritage 
of a group that once dominated the history of hoofed mammals — 
and with fragility at that, for Equus died in the land of its birth and 
had to be salvaged from a stock that had migrated elsewhere. (In 
a larger sense, horses form one of three dwindling lines — tapirs 
and rhinos are the others — that now represent all the diversity of 
the formerly dominant order Perissodactyla, or odd-toed ungu- 
lates, among hoofed mammals. This mighty group once included 
the giant titanotheres, the clawed chalicotheres, and Baluchi- 
thenum, the largest land mammal that ever lived. It now hangs on 
as a remnant in a world increasingly dominated by the Artiodac- 
tyla, or even-toed ungulates — cows, deer, antelope, camels, hip- 
pos, giraffes, pigs, and their relatives.) 

This is life’s little joke. By imposing the model of the ladder 
upon the reality of bushes, we have guaranteed that our classic 
examples of evolutionary progress can only apply to unsuccessful 
lineages on the very brink of extermination — for we can linearize 
a bush only if it maintains but one surviving twig that we can 
falsely place at the summit of a ladder. I need hardly remind 
everybody that at least one other mammalian lineage, preemi- 
nent among all in our attention and concern, shares with horses 
the sorry state of reduction from a formerly luxuriant bush to a 
single surviving twig — the very property of extreme tenuousness 
that permits us to build a ladder reaching only to the heart of our 
own folly and hubris. 

The Chain of Reason 
versus the Chain of 

the Weekly World News, most lurid entry in the dubi- 
ous genre of shopping mall tabloids, shattered all previous rec- 
ords for implausibility with a recent headline: “Siamese Twins 
Make Themselves Pregnant.” The story recounted the sad tale of 
a conjoined brother-sister pair from a remote Indian village (such 
folks never hail from Peoria, where their non-existence might be 
confirmed). They knew that their act was immoral, but after years 
of hoping in vain for ordinary partners, and in the depths of 
loneliness and frustration, they finally succumbed to an 
ever-present temptation. The story is heart-rending, but faces 
one major obstacle to belief: All Siamese twins are monozygotic, 
formed from a single fertilized egg that failed to split completely 
in the act of twinning. Thus, Siamese twins are either both male 
or both female. 

I will, however, praise the good people at Weekly World News for 
one slight scruple. They did realize that they had created a prob- 
lem with this ludicrous tale, and they did not shrink from the 
difficulty. The story acknowledged that, indeed, Siamese twins 
generally share the same sex, but held that this Indian pair had 
been formed, uniquely and differently, from two eggs that had 
fused! Usually, however, Weekly World News doesn’t even bother 
with minimal cover-ups. Recently, for example, they ran a 
screaming headline about a monster from Mars, just sighted in a 
telescope and now on its way to earth. The accompanying photo 
of the monster showed a perfectly ordinary chambered nautilus 
(an odd-looking and unfamiliar creature to be sure). I mean, they 



didn’t even bother to retouch (he photo or to hide in any way 
their absurd transmogrification of a marine mollusk into an extra- 
terrestrial marauder! 

The sad moral of this tale lies not with the practices of Weekly 
World News, but with the nature of a readership that permits such 
a publication to prosper — for if Weekly World News could not rely, 
with complete confidence, on the ignorance of its consumers, the 
paper would be exposed and discredited. The Siamese twin story 
at least showed a modicum of respect for the credulity of readers; 
the tale of the Martian monster records utter contempt both for 
the consuming public and for truth in general. 

We like to cite an old motto of our culture on the factual and 
ethical value of veracity: “And ye shall know the truth, and the 
truth shall make you free’’ (John 8:32). But ignorance has always 
prospered, serving the purposes of demagogues and profit- 
mongers. An overly optimistic account might try to link our in- 
creasing factual knowledge with the suppression of cruelties and 
abuses ranging from execution for witchcraft to human sacrifice 
for propitiating deities. But this hope cannot be sustained, for no 
century has exceeded our own in quantity of imposed cruelty (as 
“improvements” in the technology of genocide and warfare more 
than balance any overall gains in sensibility). Moreover, despite a 
great spread in the availability of education, the favored irration- 
alisms of the ages show no signs of abatement. Presidential calen- 
dars are still set by astrologers, while charlatans do a brisk 
business in necklaces made of colored glass masquerading as 
crystals that supposedly bathe believers in a salutary and intangi- 
ble “energy.” An astounding percentage of “educated" Ameri- 
cans think that the earth might be less than 10,000 years old, even 
while their own kids delight in dinosaurs at the local museum. 

The champions of beleaguered rationalism — all heroes in my 
book — have been uncovering charlatans throughout the ages: 
from Elijah denouncing the prophets of Baal to Houdini expos- 
ing the tricks of mediums to James Randi on the trail of modern 
hoaxers and hucksters. Obviously, we have not won the war, but 
we have developed effective battle strategies — and would have 
triumphed long ago were our foe not able, like the Lernean 
Hydra, to grow several new beads every time we lop one off. Still, 
tales of past victories — including the story of this essay — are not 


only useful as spurs of encouragement; they also teach us effec- 
tive methods of attack. For reason is timeless, and its application 
to unfamiliar contexts can be particularly instructive. 

How many of us realize that we are invoking a verbal remnant 
of “the greatest vogue of the 1780s” (according to historian Rob- 
ert Darnton) when we claim to be “mesmerized” by a wonderful 
concert or a beautiful sunset? Franz Anton Mesmer was a Ger- 
man physician who had acquired wealth through marriage to a 
well-endowed widow; connections by assiduous cultivation (Mo- 
zart,* a valued friend, had staged the first performance of his 
comic opera Bastien und Bastienne at Mesmer’s private theater); 
and renown with a bizarre, if fascinating, theory of “animal mag- 
netism” and its role in human health. In 1778, Mesmer trans- 
ferred to Paris, then the most “open” and vibrant capital of 
Europe, a city embracing the odd mixture so often spawned by 
liberty — intellectual ferment of the highest order combined with 
quackery at its most abject: Voltaire among the fortune tellers; 
Benjamin Franklin surrounded by astrologers; Antoine Lavoisier 
amidst the spiritualists. 

Mesmer, insofar as one can find coherence in his ideas at all, 
claimed that a single (and subtle) fluid pervaded the universe, 
uniting and connecting all bodies. We give different names to this 
fluid according to its various manifestations: gravity for planets in 
their courses; electricity in a thunderstorm; magnetism for navi- 
gation by compass. The same fluid flows through organisms and 

*1 thank Gerald A. Le Boff and Ernest F. Marmorek for informing me, after 
reading this essay at its initial publication, of another explicit link between Mozart 
(and his great librettist, DaPonte) and Mesmer. In Cost Fan Tutte, the maid De- 
spina, disguised as a physician, “cures” Ferrando and Guglielmo of their feigned 
illness by touching their foreheads with a large magnet and then gently stroking 
the length of their bodies. An orchestral tremolo recalls the curing mesmeric 
crisis, while Despina describes her magnet as: 

pietra Mesmerica 
ch’ebbe l’origine 
nelf Alemagna 
che poi si celebre 
la in Francia fu. 

— a mesmeric stone that had its origin in Germany and then was so famous in 
France (a fine epitome of Mesmer’s tactic and its geographic history). 


may be called animal magnetism. A blockage of this flow causes 
disease, and cure requires a reestablishment of the flux and a 
restoration of equilibrium. (Mesmer himself never went so far as 
to ascribe all bodily ills to blocked magnetism, but several disci- 
ples held this extreme view, and such a motto came to character- 
ize the mesmeric movement: “There is only one illness and one 

Cure of illness requires the intervention of an “adept,” a per- 
son with unusually strong magnetism who can locate the “poles” 
of magnetic flow on the exterior of a human body and, by massag- 
ing these areas, break the blockage within to reestablish the nor- 
mal flux. When working one on one, Mesmer would sit directly 
opposite his patient, establishing the proper contact and flow by 
holding the sufferer’s knees within his own, touching fingers, and 
staring directly into her face (most patients were women, thus 
adding another dimension to charges of exploitation). Mesmer, 
by all accounts, was a most charismatic man — and we need no 
great psychological sophistication to suspect that he might have 
produced effects more by power of suggestion than by flow of any 

In any case, the effects could be dramatic. Within a few minutes 
of mesmerizing, sensitive patients would fall into a characteristic 
“crisis” taken by Mesmer as proof of his method. Bodies would 
begin to shake, arms and legs move violently and involuntarily, 
teeth chatter loudly. Patients would grimace, groan, babble, 
scream, faint, and fall unconscious. Several repetitions of these 
treatments would reestablish magnetic equilibrium and produce 
cures. Mesmer carried sheaves of testimonials claiming recovery 
from a variety of complaints. Even his most determined critics did 
not deny all cures, but held that Mesmer had only relieved certain 
psychosomatic illnesses by the power of suggestion and had pro- 
duced no physical effects with his putative universal fluid. 

Mesmer’s popularity required the development of methods for 
treating large numbers of patients simultaneously (such a proce- 
dure didn't hurt profits either), and Mesmer imposed high 
charges, in two senses, upon his mostly aristocratic crowd. More- 
over, as a master of manipulation, Mesmer surely recognized the 
social value of treatment in groups — both the reinforcing effect 
of numerous crises and the simple value of conviviality in spread- 


A patient falls into a Mesmeric crisis as the eponymous hero himself 
performs a cure, the bettmann archive. 

ing any vogue as a joint social event and medical cure. Mesmer 
therefore began to magnetize inanimate objects and to use these 
charged bodies as instruments of unblocking and cure. 

Many contemporary descriptions and drawings of Mesmer’s 
sessions depict the same basic scene. Mesmer placed a large vat, 
called a baquet, in the center of a room. He then filled the baquet 
with “magnetized” water and, sometimes, a layer of iron filings as 
well. Some twenty thin metal rods protruded from the baquet. A 


patient would grab hold of a rod and apply it to the mesmeric 
poles of his body. To treat more than twenty, Mesmer would loop 
a rope from those who surrounded the baquet (and held the iron 
rods) to others in the room, taking care that the rope contained 
no knots, for such constrictions impeded the flux. Patients would 
then form a “mesmeric chain” by holding a neighbor’s left thumb 
between their own right thumb and forefinger, while extending 
their own left thumb to the next patient down the line. By squeez- 
ing a neighbor’s left thumb, magnetic impulses could be sent all 
the way down the chain. 

Mesmer, whether consciously or not, surely exploited both the 
art and politics of psychosomatic healing. Everything in his cur- 
ing room was carefully arranged to maximize results, efficiency, 
and profit. He installed mirrors to reflect the action and encour- 
age mass response; he heightened the effect with music played on 
the ethereal tones of a glass harmonica, the instrument that Ben- 
jamin Franklin had developed; he employed assistants to carry 
convulsive patients into a “crisis room” lined with mattresses, 
lest they should hurt themselves in their frenzy. To avoid the 
charge of prohtmongering among the rich alone, Mesmer pro- 
vided a poor man’s cure by magnetizing trees and inviting the 
indigent to take their relief gratis and alfresco. 

I don’t want to commit the worst historical error of wrenching 
a person from his own time and judging him by modern stan- 
dards and categories. Thus, Franz Mesmer was not Uri Geller 
teleported to 1780. For one thing, historical records of Mesmer 
are scanty, and we do not even know whether he was a simple 
charlatan, purveying conscious fakery for fame and profit, or a 
sincere believer, deluded no less than his patients in mistaking 
the power of suggestion for the physical effects of an actual sub- 
stance. For another, the lines between science and pseudoscience 
were not so clearly drawn in Mesmer’s time. A strong group of 
rationalists was laboring to free science from speculation, system 
building, and untestable claims about universal harmonies. But 
their campaign also demonstrates that all-embracing and specu- 
lative systems were still viewed by many scholars as legitimate 
parts of science in the eighteenth century. Robert Darnton, who 
has written the best modern book on mesmerism, describes the 
French intellectual world of the 1780s (Mesmerism and the End of the 
Enlightenment in France , 1968); 


They looked out on a world so different from our own that 
we can hardly perceive it; for our view is blocked by our own 
cosmologies assimilated, knowingly or not, from the scien- 
tists and philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 
18th century, the view of literate Frenchmen opened upon a 
splendid, baroque universe, where their gaze rode on waves 
of invisible fluid into realms of infinite speculation. 

Still, whatever the differing boundaries and cultural assump- 
tions, the fact remains that Mesmer based his system on specific 
claims about fluids, their modes of flow, and their role in causing 
and curing human disease — claims subject to test by the ordinary 
procedures of experimental science. The logic of argument has a 
universality that transcends culture, and late eighteenth century 
debunking differs in no substantial way from the modern efforts. 
Indeed, I write this essay because the most celebrated analysis of 
mesmerism, the report of the Royal Commission of 1784, is a 
masterpiece of the genre, an enduring testimony to the power 
and beauty of reason. 

Mesmerism became such a craze in the 1780s that many institu- 
tions began to worry and retaliate. Conventional medicine, which 
offered so little in the way of effective treatment, was running 
scared. Empirical and experimental scientists viewed Mesmer as 
a throwback to the worst excesses of speculation. People in power 
feared the irrationalism, the potential for sexual license, the pos- 
sibility that Mesmer’s mass sessions might rupture boundaries 
between social classes. Moreover, Mesmer had many powerful 
friends in high circles, and his disturbing ideas might spread by 
export. (Mesmer counted Lafayette among his most ardent disci- 
ples. King Louis XVI asked Lafayette before he departed for 
America in 1784: “What will Washington think when he learns 
that you have become Mesmer’s chief journeyman apothecary?” 
Lafayette did proselytize for Mesmer on our shores, although 
Thomas Jefferson actively opposed him. Lafayette even visited a 
group of Shakers, thinking that they had discovered a form of 
mesmerism in their religious dances.) 

The mesmeric vogue became sufficiently serious that Louis 
XVI was persuaded to establish a Royal Commission in 1784 to 
evaluate the claims of animal magnetism. The commission was 


surely stacked against Mesmer, but it proceeded with scrupulous 
fairness and thoroughness. Never in history has such an extraor- 
dinary and luminous group been gathered together in the service 
of rational inquiry by the methods of experimental science. For 
this reason alone, the Rapport des commissaires charges par le roi de 
I'examen du magnetisme animal (Report of the Commissioners 
Charged by the King to Examine Animal Magnetism) is a key 
document in the history of human reason. It should be rescued 
from its current obscurity, translated into all languages, and re- 
printed by organizations dedicated to the unmasking of quackery 
and the defense of rational thought. 

The commissioners included several of France’s leading physi- 
cians and scientists, but two names stand out: Benjamin Franklin 
and Antoine Lavoisier. (Franklin served as titular head of the 
commission, signed the report first, and designed and performed 
several of the experiments; Lavoisier was the commission’s guid- 
ing spirit and probably wrote the final report.) The conjunction 
may strike some readers as odd, but no two men could have been 
more appropriate or more available. Franklin lived in Paris, as 
official representative of our newborn nation, from 1776 to 1785. 
American intellectuals sometimes underestimate Franklin’s sta- 
tus, assuming perhaps that we revere him faute de mieux and for 
parochial reasons — and that he was really a pipsqueak and ama- 
teur among the big boys of Europe. Not at all. Franklin was a 
universally respected scholar and a great, world-class scientist in 
an age when nearly all practitioners were technically amateurs. As 
the world’s leading expert on electricity — a supposed manifesta- 
tion of Mesmer’s universal fluid — Franklin was an obvious choice 
for the commission. His interest also extended to smaller details, 
in particular to Mesmer’s use of the glass harmonica (Franklin’s 
own invention) as an auxiliary in the precipitation of crises. As for 
Lavoisier, he ranks as one of the half-dozen greatest scientific 
geniuses of all time: He wrote with chilling clarity, and he 
thought with commanding rigor. If the membership contains any 
odd or ironic conjunction, I would point rather to the inclusion of 
Dr. Guillotin among the physicians — for Lavoisier would die, ten 
years later, under the knife that bore the good doctor’s name (see 
Essay 24). 

The experimental method is often oversold or promulgated as 


the canonical, or even the only, mode of science. As a natural 
historian, I have often stressed and reported the different ap- 
proaches used in explaining unique and complex historical 
events — aspects of the world that cannot be simulated in labora- 
tories or predicted from laws of nature (see my book Wonderful 
Life, 1989). Moreover, the experimental method is fundamentally 
conservative, not innovative — a set of procedures for evaluating 
and testing ideas that originate in other ways. Yet, despite these 
caveats about nonexclusivity and limited range, the experimental 
method is a tool of unparalleled power in its appropriate (and 
large) domain. 

Lavoisier, Franklin, and colleagues conclusively debunked 
Mesmer by applying the tools of their experimental craft, tried 
and true: standardization of complex situations to delineate pos- 
sible causal factors, repetition of experiments with control and 
variation, and separation and independent testing of proposed 
causes. The mesmerists never recovered, and their leader and 
namesake soon hightailed it out of Paris for good, although he 
continued to live in adequate luxury, if with reduced fame and 
prestige, until 1815. Just a year after the commission’s report, 
Thomas Jefferson, replacing Franklin as American representative 
in Paris, noted in his journal: “animal magnetism dead, ridi- 
culed.” (Jefferson was overly optimistic, for irrationalism born of 
hope never dies; still, the report of Franklin and Lavoisier was 
probably the key incident that turned the tide of opinion — a sub- 
tle lluid far more palpable and powerful than animal magnet- 
ism — against Mesmer.) 

The commissioners began with a basic proposition to guide 
their testing: “Animal magnetism might well exist without being 
useful, but it cannot be useful if it doesn’t exist.” Yet, any attempt 
to affirm the existence of animal magnetism faced an intense and 
immediate frustration: The mesmerists insisted that their subtle 
fluid had no tangible or measurable attributes. Imagine the cha- 
grin of a group of eminent physical scientists trying to test the 
existence of a fluid without physical properties! They wrote, with 
the barely concealed contempt that makes Lavoisier’s report both 
a masterpiece of rhetoric and an exemplar of experimental 
method (the two are not inconsistent because fair and scrupulous 
procedures do not demand neutrality, but only strict adherence 
to the rules of the craft): 


It didn't take the Commissioners long to recognize that this 
fluid escapes all sensation. It is not at all luminous and visi- 
ble like electricity [the reference, of course, is to lightning 
before the days of “invisible” flow through modern wires]. 

Its action is not clearly evident, as the attraction of a mag- 
net. It has no taste, no odor. It works without sound, and 
surrounds or penetrates you without warning you of its 
presence. If it exists in us and around us, it does so in an 
absolutely insensible manner. [All quotations from the 
commissioners’ report are my translations from an original 
copy in Harvard’s Houghton Library.] 

The commissioners therefore recognized that they would have 
to test for the existence of animal magnetism through its effects, 
not its physical properties. This procedure suggested a focus ei- 
ther on cures or on the immediate (and dramatic) crises sup- 
posedly provoked by the flow of magnetism during Mesmer’s 
sessions. The commissioners rejected a test of cures for three 
obvious and excellent reasons: Cures take too long and time was 
awasting as the mesmeric craze spread; cures can be caused by 
many factors, and the supposed effects of magnetism could not 
be separated from other reasons for recovery; nature, left to her 
own devices, relieves many ills without any human intervention. 
(Franklin wryly suspected that an unintended boost to nature lay 
at the root of Mesmer’s successes. His fluid didn’t exist, and his 
sessions produced no physical effect. But patients in his care 
stayed away from conventional physicians and therefore didn’t 
take the ordinary pills and potions that undoubtedly did more 
harm than good and impeded natural recovery.) Mesmer, on the 
other hand, wanted to focus upon cures, and he refused to coop- 
erate with the commission when they would not take his advice. 
The commission therefore worked in close collaboration with 
Mesmer’s chief disciple, Charles Deslon, who attended the tests 
and attempted to magnetize objects and people. (Deslon’s coop- 
eration indicates that the chief mesmerists were not frauds, but 
misguided believers in their own system. Mesmer tried to 
dissociate himself from the commission’s findings, arguing that 
Deslon was a blunderer unable to control the magnetic flux — 
but all to no avail, and the entire movement suffered from the 


The commissioners began by trying to magnetize themselves. 
Once a week, and then for three days in a row (to test a claim that 
such concentrated time boosted the efficiency of magnetism), 
they sat for two and a half hours around Deslon’s baquet in his 
Paris curing room, faithfully following all the mesmeric rituals. 
Nobody felt a thing beyond boredom and discomfort. (I am, 
somehow, greatly taken by the image of these enormously tal- 
ented and intensely skeptical men sitting around a baquet, pre- 
sumably under their perukes, joined by a rope, each holding an 
iron rod, and “making from time to time,” to quote Lavoisier, 
“the chain of thumbs.” I can picture the scene, as Lavoisier 
says — Okay boys, ready? One, two, squeeze those thumbs now.) 

The commissioners recognized that their own failure scarcely 
settled the issue, for none was seriously ill (despite Franklin’s 
gout), and Mesmer’s technique might only work on sick people 
with magnetic blockages. Moreover, they acknowledged that 
their own skepticism might be impeding a receptive state of 
mind. They therefore tested seven “common” people with as- 
sorted complaints and then, in a procedure tied to the social 
assumptions of the ancien regime, seven sufferers from the upper 
classes, reasoning that people of higher status would be less sub- 
ject, by their refinement and general superiority, to the power of 
suggestion. The results supported power of suggestion as the 
cause of crises, rather than physical effects of a fluid. Only five of 
fourteen subjects noted any results, and only three — all from the 
lower classes — experienced anything severe enough to label as a 
crisis. “Those who belong to a more elevated class, endowed with 
more light, and more capable of recognizing their sensations, 
experienced nothing.” Interestingly, two commoners who felt 
nothing — a child and a young retarded woman — might be judged 
less subject to the power of suggestion, but not less able to expe- 
rience the flow of a fluid, if it existed. 

These preliminaries brought the commissioners to the crux of 
their experiments. They had proceeded by progressive elimina- 
tion and concentration on a key remaining issue. They had hoped 
to test for physical evidence of the fluid itself, but could not and 
chose instead to concentrate on its supposed effects. They had 
decided that immediate reactions rather than long-term cures 
must form the focus of experiments. They had tried the standard 
techniques on themselves, without result. They had given mes- 


merists the benefit of all doubt by using the same methods on 
people with illnesses and inclined to accept the mesmeric sys- 
tem — still without positive results. The investigation now came 
down to a single question, admirably suited for experimental res- 
olution: I he undoubted crises that mesmerists could induce 
might be caused by one of two factors (or perhaps both) — the 
psychological power of suggestion or the physical action of a 

The experimental method demands that the two possible 
causes be separated in controlled situations. People must be sub- 
jected to the power of suggestion but not magnetized, and then 
magnetized but not subject to suggestion. These separations de- 
manded a bit of honorable duplicity from the commissioners — 
for they needed to tell people that nonmagnetized objects were 
really full of mesmeric fluid (suggestion without physical cause), 
and then magnetize people without letting them know (physical 
cause without suggestion). 

In a clever series of experiments, designed mainly by Lavoisier 
and carried out at franklin s home in Passy, the commissioners 
made the necessary separations and achieved a result as clear as 
any in the history of debunking: Crises are caused by suggestion; 
not a shred of evidence exists for any fluid, and animal magnet- 
ism, as a physical force, must be firmly rejected. 

For the separation of suggestion from magnetism, Franklin 
asked Deslon to magnetize one of five trees in his garden. A 
young man, certified by Deslon as particularly sensitive to mag- 
netism, was led to embrace each tree in turn, but not told about 
the smoking gun. He reported increasing strength of magnetiza- 
tion in each successive tree and finally fell unconscious in a classic 
mesmeric crisis before the fourth tree. Only the fifth, however, 
had been magnetized by Deslon! Mesmerists rejected the result, 
arguing that all trees have some natural magnetization anyway, 
and that Deslon’s presence in the garden might have enhanced 
the effect. But Lavoisier replied scornfully: 

But then, a person sensitive to magnetization would not be 
able to chance a walk in a garden without the risk of suffer- 
ing convulsions, and such an assertion is therefore denied 
by ordinary, everyday experience. 


Nevertheless, the commissioners persisted with several other 
experiments, all leading to the same conclusion — that suggestion 
without magnetism could easily produce full-scale mesmeric 
crises. They blindfolded a woman and told her that Deslon was in 
the room, filling her with magnetism. He was nowhere near, but 
the woman had a classic crisis. They then tested the patient with- 
out a blindfold, telling her that Deslon was in the next room 
directing the fluid at her. He was not, but she had a crisis. In both 
cases, the woman was not magnetized or even touched, but her 
crises were intense. 

Lavoisier conducted another experiment at his home in the 
Arsenal (where he worked as Commissioner of Gunpowder, hav- 
ing helped America’s revolution with materiel, as much as La- 
fayette had aided with men). Several porcelain cups were filled 
with water, one supposedly strongly magnetized. A particularly 
sensitive woman who, in anticipation, had already experienced a 
crisis in Lavoisier’s antechamber, received each cup in turn. She 
began to quiver after touching the second cup and fell into a full 
crisis upon receiving the fourth. When she recovered and asked 
for a cup of water, the foxy Lavoisier finally passed her the mag- 
netized liquid. This time, she not only held, but actually imbibed, 
although “she drank tranquilly and said that she felt relieved.” 

The commissioners then proceeded to the reverse test of mag- 
netizing without unleashing the power of suggestion. They 
removed the door between two rooms at Franklin’s home and 
replaced it with a paper partition (offering no bar at all, according 
to Deslon, to the flow of mesmeric fluid). They induced a young 
seamstress, a woman with particularly acute sensitivity to mag- 
netism, to sit next to the partition. From the other side, but un- 
known to the seamstress, an adept magnetizer tried for half an 
hour to fill her with fluid and induce a crisis, but “during all this 
time. Miss B . . . made gay conversation; asked about her health, 
she freely answered that she felt very well.” Yet, when the mag- 
netizer entered the room, and his presence became known (while 
acting from an equal or greater distance), the seamstress began 
to convulse after three minutes and fell into a full crisis in twelve 

The evident finding, after so many conclusive experiments — 
that no evidence exists for Mesmer’s fluid and that all noted ef- 
fects may be attributed to the power of imagination — seems 


almost anticlimactic, and the commissioners offered their result 
with clarity and brevity: “The practice of magnetization is the art 
of increasing the imagination by degrees.” Lavoisier then ended 
the report with a brilliant analysis of the reasons for such fre- 
quent vogues of irrationalism throughout human history. Lie 
cited two major causes, or predisposing factors of the human 
mind and heart. First, our brains just don’t seem to be well 
equipped for reasoning by probability. Fads find their most fer- 
tile ground in subjects, like the curing of disease, that require a 
separation of many potential causes and an assessment of proba- 
bility in judging the value of a result: 

The art of concluding from experience and observation 
consists in evaluating probabilities, in estimating if they are 
high or numerous enough to constitute proof. This type of 
calculation is more complicated and more difficult than one 
might think. It demands a great sagacity generally above the 
power of common people. The success of charlatans, sor- 
cerers, and alchemists — and all those who abuse public 
credulity — is founded on errors in this type of calculation. 

I would alter only Lavoisier’s patrician assumption that ordi- 
nary folks cannot master this mode of reasoning — and write in- 
stead that most people surely can but, thanks to poor education 
and lack of encouragement from general culture, do not. The end 
result is the same — riches for Las Vegas and disappointment for 
Pete Rose. But at least the modern view does not condemn us to a 
permanent and inevitable status as saps, dupes, and dunces. 

Second, whatever our powers of abstract reasoning, we are also 
prisoners of our hopes. So long as life remains disappointing and 
cruel for so many people, we shall be prey to irrationalisms that 
promise relief. Lavoisier regarded his countrymen as more so- 
phisticated than previous suckers of centuries past, but still vic- 
tims of increasingly sly manipulators (nothing has changed today, 
as the Gellers and von Danikens remain one step ahead of their 
ever-gullible disciples): 

This theory [mesmerism] is presented today with the more 
imposing apparatus [I presume that Lavoisier means both 
ideas and contraptions] necessary in our more enlightened 


century — but it is no less false. Man seizes, abandons, but 

then commits again the errors that flatter him. 

Since hope is an ever-present temptress in a world of woe, 
mesmerism “attracts people by the two hopes that touch them 
the most: that of knowing the future and that of prolonging their 

Lavoisier then drew an apt parallel between the communal 
crises of mesmeric sessions and the mass emotionalism so often 
exploited by demagogues and conquerors throughout history — 
“I’enthousiasme du courage ” (enthusiasm of courage) or “I’unite d’iv- 
resse” (unity of intoxication). Generals elicit this behavior by 
sounding drums and playing bugles; promoters by hiring a 
claque to begin and direct the applause after performances; 
demagogues by manipulating the mob. 

Lavoisier’s social theory offered no solution to the destructive 
force of irrationalism beyond a firm and continuing hegemony of 
the educated elite. (As my one criticism of the commissioners’ 
report, Lavoisier and colleagues could see absolutely nothing sal- 
utary, in any conceivable form, in the strong emotionalism of a 
mesmeric crisis. They did not doubt the power of the psyche to 
cure, but as sons of the Enlightenment, children of the Age of 
Reason, they proclaimed that only a state of calm and cheerful- 
ness could convey any emotional benefit to the afflicted. In this 
restriction, they missed an important theme of human complexity 
and failed to grasp the potential healing effect of many phenom- 
ena that call upon the wilder emotions — from speaking in 
tongues to catharsis in theatrical performance to aspects of 
Freudian psychoanalysis. In this sense, some Freudians view 
Mesmer as a worthy precursor with a key insight into human 
nature. I hesitate to confer such status upon a man who attained 
great wealth from something close to quackery — but I see the 

I envision no easy solution either, but I adopt a less pessimistic 
attitude than Lavoisier. Human nature is flexible enough to avert 
the baleful effects of intoxicated unity, and history shows that 
revolutionary enthusiasm need not devolve into hatred and mass 
murder. Consider Franklin and Lavoisier one last time. Our revo- 
lution remained in the rational hands of numerous Franklins, 
Jeffersons, and Washingtons; France descended from the Decla- 


ration of the Rights of Man into the Reign of Terror. (I do recog- 
nize the different situations, particularly the greater debt of ha- 
tred, based on longer and deeper oppression, necessarily 
discharged by the new rulers of France. Still, no inevitability at- 
tended the excesses fanned by mass emotionalism.) In other 

Antoine Lavoisier 
Lost his head 
Benjamin Franklin 
Died in bed. 

From which, I think, we can only conclude that Mr. Franklin 
understood a thing or two when he remarked, speaking of his 
fellow patriots, but extended here to all devotees of reason, that 
we must either hang together or hang separately. 



Art and 

Madame Jeanette 

thirty YEARS ago, on April 30, 1958, to be exact, I 
sat with 250 students facing one of the most formidable men of 
our generation — Peter J. Wilhousky, director of music in the New 
York City schools and conductor of the New York All-City High 
School Chorus. As the warm, and primarily parental, applause 
receded at the concert’s end, Wilhousky returned to the podium 
of Carnegie Hall, gestured for silence, and raised his baton to 
conduct the traditional encore, “Madame Jeanette.” Halfway 
through, he turned and, without missing a beat (to invoke a cliche 
in its appropriate, literal sense), smiled to acknowledge the 
chorus alumni who stood at their seats or surrounded the po- 
dium, singing with their current counterparts. These former 
members seemed so ancient to me — though none had passed 
forty, for the chorus itself was then only twenty years old — and 
their solidarity moved me to a rare fit of tears at a time when 
teenage boys did not cry in public. 

“Madame Jeanette” is a dangerous little piece, for it ventures 
so near the edge of cloying sentimentality. It tells the tale, in close 
four-part a cappella harmony, of a French widow who sits at her 
door by day and at her window by night. There she thinks only of 
her husband, killed so many years before on the battlefield of St. 
Pierre, and dreams of the day that they will be reunited at the 
cemetery of Pere Lachaise. With 250 teenagers and sloppy con- 
ducting, “Madame Jeanette” becomes a maudlin and embarrass- 
ing tearfest. Wilhousky, ever the perfectionist, ever the 
rationalist, somehow steered to the right side of musicality, and 
ended each concert with integrity and control. 



“Madame Jeanette” was our symbol of continuity. For a very 
insecure boy, singing second bass on the brink of manhood, “Ma- 
dame Jeanette” offered another wonderful solace. It ends, for the 
basses, on a low D-flat, just about as far down the scale as any 
composer would dare ask a singer to venture. Yes, I knew even 
then that low did not mean masculine, or capable, or mature, or 
virile — but that fundament resonated with hope and possibility, 
even in pianissimo. 

Len and I met at the bus stop every Saturday morning at 7:30, 
took the Q,17 to 169th Street and the subway to Lexington Ave- 
nue, walked uptown along the line of the old 1 hird Avenue El, 
and arrived at Julia Richman High School just in time for the 9 
a.m. rehearsal. 

We lived, thirty years ago, in an age of readier obedience, but I 
still marvel at the discipline that Wilhousky could maintain with 
his mixture of awe (inspired) and terror (promulgated). He 
forged our group of blacks from Harlem, Puerto Ricans from the 
great migration then in progress, Jews from Queens, and Italians 
from Staten Island into a responsive singing machine. He 
worked, in part, through intimidation by public ridicule. One day, 
he stopped the rehearsal and pointed to the tenor section, saying: 
“You, third row, fourth seat, stand up. You’re singing flat. Ten 
years ago, Julius La Rosa sat in that same seat — and sang flat. And 
he’s still singing flat.” (Memory is a curious trickster. La Rosa, in 
a recent New Yorker profile, states that Wilhousky praised him in 
the same forum for singing so true to pitch. But I know what I 
heard. Or is the joke on me?) Each year, he cashiered a member 
or two for talking or giggling — in public, and with no hope of 
mercy or reinstatement. 

But Peter Wilhousky had another side that inspired us all and 
conveyed the most important lesson of intellectual fife. He was 
one of the finest choral conductors in America, yet he chose to 
spend every Saturday morning with high school kids. His only 
rule, tacit but pervasive, proclaimed: “No compromises.” We 
could sing, with proper training and practice, as well as any group 
in America — nothing else would be tolerated or even conceptual- 
ized. Anything less would not be worth doing at all. I had encoun- 
tered friendliness, grace, kindness, animation, clarity, and 
dedication among my teachers, but I had never even considered 
the notion that unqualified excellence could emerge from any- 


thing touched or made by students. The idea, however, is infec- 
tious. As I worked with Wilhousky, I slowly personalized the 
dream that excellence in one activity might be extended to 
become the pattern, or at least the goal, of an actual life. 

Len phoned me a few months ago and suggested that we attend 
this year’s concert, the thirtieth since our valedictory. I hesitated 
for two reasons. I feared that my memory of excellence would not 
be supported by reality, and I didn’t relish the role of a graybeard 
from springs long past, standing and singing “Madamejeanette” 
from the audience, should that peculiar tradition still be hon- 
ored. But sentiment and curiosity prevailed, and we went. 

Yes, Heraclitus, you cannot step twice into the same river. The 
raw material remains — talented kids of all colors, shapes, back- 
grounds. But the goal has been inverted. Wilhousky tried to mold 
all this diversity into the uncompromising, single standard of 
elite culture as expressed in the classical repertory for chorus and 
orchestra. In the auditorium of Julia Richman High School, 
before his arrival, we used to form small pickup groups to sing 
the latest rock-and-roll numbers. But when our sentinels spotted 
the maestro, they quickly spread the alarm and dead silence de- 
scended. Wilhousky claimed that rock-and-roll encouraged poor 
habits of voice and pitch, and he would expel anyone caught 
singing the stuff in his bailiwick. 

Diversity has now triumphed, and the forbidden fruit of our era 
has become the entire first part of the program. The concert 
began with the All-City marching band, complete with drum 
major, baton twirlers, and flag carriers. Then the All-City jazz 

A full concert and two hours later, the orchestra and chorus 
finally received their turn. Not only has the number of ensembles 
expanded to respect the diversity of tastes and inclinations in our 
polyglot city, but each group has also retained a distinctive sig- 
nature. Blacks predominate in the chorus; the string sections of 
the orchestra are overwhelmingly Asian. The chorus is now led 
by Edith Del Valle, a tall, stunning woman who heads the vocal 
department at Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of the Arts. 
(As a single sign of continuity, Anna Ext still coaches the so- 
pranos, as she did in our day and has for thirty-two years. How 
can we convey adequate praise to a woman who has devoted so 
much, for so long, to a voluntary, weekend organization — except 


to say that our language contains no word more noble than 

The chorus still sings the same basic repertory — Randall 
Thompson’s “Alleluia,” Wilhousky’s own arrangement of “The 
Battle Hymn of the Republic,” some Bach and Beethoven, and an 
Irving Berlin medley for the season of his centennial. 

How good are they, and how good were we? Was Wilhousky’s 
insistence on full professionalism just a vain conceit? They sing 
by memory, and therefore (since eyes can be fixed on the conduc- 
tor), with uncanny precision and unanimity. But I demur for two 
reasons. First, the sound, though lovely in raw quality, is so emo- 
tionless, as though text and style of composition have no influ- 
ence upon interpretation. Perhaps we sang in the same manner. 
The soul of these classics may not be accessible before the legal 
age of drinking, driving, and voting. 

But my second reservation troubles me more. The chorus is 
terribly unbalanced, with 129 women and only 31 men. The ten- 
ors are reduced to astringent shouting as the evening wears on. 
This cannot be by design, and can only mean that the chorus is 
not attracting anywhere near the requisite number of male appli- 
cants. Thirteen of the 31 men hail from the conductor’s own 
specialty school. La Guardia High. Have they been pressed into 
desperate service? In our chorus, all sections were balanced. We 
clamored in our local high schools for the strictly limited right to 
audition, and fewer than half the applicants succeeded. 

I mused upon these inadequacies as the evening wore on (and 
the tenors tired). The expanded diversity of bands and jazz is 
both exciting and a proper testimony to cultural pluralism. The 
relaxed attitude of performers contrasts pleasantly with the rigid 
formalism and nervousness of our era (I could have died in a 
spectacular backward plunge off the top riser of Carnegie Hall 
when I felt the chair’s rearward creep, but didn’t dare stop to 
fidget and readjust). 

But has the evening’s diversity and spontaneous joy pushed 
aside Wilhousky’s uncompromising excellence? Can the two 
ideals, each so important in itself, coexist at all? And if not, what- 
ever shall we do to keep alive that harsh vision of the best of the 

But if I felt this single trouble amidst my pleasure, at least I 
wouldn’t have to worry about “Madame Jeanette” in this new 


river. Surely, that tradition had evaporated, and I would not have 
to face brightness and acne from the depths of advancing middle 
age in the fifteenth row. After all, “Madame Jeanette” is a quiet 
classical piece for chorus alone — and the chorus no longer holds 
pride of place among the various ensembles. 

I applauded warmly after the finale, pleasure only slightly 
tinged with a conceptual sort of sadness, and then turned to 
leave. But Edith Del Valle strode out from the wings and, with a 
presence fully equal to Wilhousky’s, stepped onto the podium — 
to conduct “Madame Jeanette.” Old members scurried to the 
front. Len and I looked at each other and, without exchanging a 
word, rose in unison. 

No tears. We are both still terrified of Wilhousky’s wrath, and 
his ghost surely stood on that stage, watching carefully for any 
sign of inattention or departure from pitch. This time, the chorus 
sang exquisitely, for “Madame Jeanette” succeeds by precision 
or fails by overinvolvement. The imbalance of sections does not 
affect such a quiet song, while its honest, but simple, sentimental- 
ity can be encompassed by the high-school soul. 

Edith Del Valle, the black woman from La Guardia High, 
blended with her absolute opposite, the silver-haired Slavic aris- 
tocrat, Peter ). Wilhousky. The discipline and precision of her 
chorus — their species of excellence — had triumphed to convert 
the potentially maudlin into thoughtful dignity for tradition’s 
sake, ft was a pleasure to make music with her. If youth and age 
can produce such harmony, there must be hope for pluralism and 
excellence — but only if we can recover, and fully embrace, Wil- 
housky’s dictum: No compromises. 

I learned something else at this final celebration of continuity, 
something every bit as important to me, if only parochially: I can 
still hit that low D-flat. Father Lachaise may be beckoning, but 
“Madame Jeanette” and I are still hanging tough and young in 
our separate ways. 


This essay, which first appeared in the New York Times Magazine , 
unleashed a flood of reminiscence by correspondence, mostly 


from former chorus members and others who knew Peter Wil- 
housky. I was regaled with many sweet memories, particularly of 
our custom in jamming subway cars after leaving the rehearsals en 
masse and singing (generally to the keen surprise and enjoyment 
of passengers) until the accumulating departures of homebound 
choristers reduced our ranks to less than four-part harmony. But 
one theme, in its several guises, pervaded all the letters and rein- 
forced the serious, and decidedly nonsentimental, raison d'etre of 
this essay — Wilhousky’s commitment to excellence and its impact 
upon us. One woman wrote from a generation before mine: 

Mr. Wilhousky was my music teacher and mentor 55 years 
ago when I was a student at New Utrecht High in Brooklyn. 
We had an outstanding choir that won every competition in 
my four years at the school. How we adored and esteemed 
this wonderful man who by the way we were sure was a 
prince: so handsome and aristocratic. He was then, as well 
as you say later, a stickler for seriousness, discipline, and 
dedication to our work. He encouraged those of us with 
some talent to continue our studies and many of us did. 

Another who sang in the chorus five years before me said: 

What memories you stirred for me, and brought forth some 
tears too. Only another choir member could share how spe- 
cial those rehearsals and concerts were. Just to be chosen to 
audition was an honor. . . . Madame Jeanette is turning 
around in my head now. I recall teaching the bass part to my 
kid brother so that we could sing. I’ve taught it to my hus- 
band and kids too. I was in awe of Peter J. Wilhousky. Disci- 
pline was never a problem in this group. How we loved to 

And from ten years after my watch: 

Today I am a professional singer in Philadelphia, having 
sung with umpteen college groups, choruses, community 
theaters, opera workshops, etc., hut nothing will ever match 
that full-bodied enthusiastic blend of voices I remember 
now so well. My children poked gentle fun at me today as I 


waxed enthusiastic over your story and they listened to 
INXS on their Walkmans as I hummed Madame Jeanette 
over and over again. 

And finally, from a Wilhousky counterpart in Portland, Oregon: 
“The taste of excellence is the hook. The kids never forget — as 
you obviously have not.” 

I his accumulated weight of testimony made me reassess the 
tone of the essay itself. I now think that I was a bit too ecumeni- 
cally forgiving of the chorus’s present insufficiencies. We proba- 
bly were very good (if not quite so subtle and professional as 
clouds of memory suggest); in any case, the ideal of uncompro- 
mising excellence certainly pervaded our concepts and did pass 
down into our subsequent lives. I don’t see how the present 
chorus can be engendering such an attitude with an appeal so 
feeble that male singers must be dredged up rather than turned 
away after dreaming, scheming, and begging for a chance (as we 
did). Phis is simply too great a loss for any gain in diversity or 
relaxation. Islands of excellence are too rare and precious in our 
world of mediocrity; any erosion and foundering is tragic. 

Finally, for I really do not wish to end a sweet story on a sour 
note, may I report Julius La Rosa’s version of his incident with 
Wilhousky. He writes in a letter of November 17, 1988, that the 
chorus was rehearsing “Begin the Beguine” (during his tenure in 
the late 1940s). Wilhousky wanted the men to sing with a cello- 
like tone. La Rosa writes: 

I swear to you, I can still see him holding an imaginary cello, 
his left hand on the neck, fingers pressing down on the 
strings and vibrating to achieve the desired tremolo. But we 
weren't getting it so he told us to stand up, individually, and 
sing the phrase. My turn. I sang it. He asked me to do it 
again, then exclaimed, “That’s it!” And all I remember after 
that was walking back to the subway with Jeanette feeling 
seven feet tall. 

La Rosa was also gracious enough to add: “And yes, though time 
does distort the memory, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was flat the 
day he, Mr. Wilhousky, singled me out. I was terrified — and prob- 
ably didn’t take a good deep breath! !” (Actually, I don’t doubt for 


a moment that both La Rosa’s version and what I heard ten years 
later from Wilhousky are entirely accurate. We scarcely need Ra- 
shomon to teach us that rich events are remembered for different 
parts and different emphases — so that equally accurate, but par- 
tial versions yield almost contradictory impressions.) 

And if La Rosa’s reference to Jeanette ( not Madame) puzzled 
you, let me close with his ultimate touche from earlier in his 

All-City Chorus was an enchantment. . . . And lucky, too, I 
was ’cause 1 could walk from the subway along Third Ave- 
nue with Jeanette — Yes! Jeanette Caponegro, second alto — 
while you were stuck with Len! 

Red Wings in the Sunset 

teddy Roosevelt borrowed an African proverb to 
construct his motto: Speak softly, but carry a big stick. In 1912, a 
critic turned Roosevelt’s phrase against him, castigating the old 
Roughrider for trying to demolish an opponent by rhetoric 
alone: “Ridicule is a powerful weapon and the temptation to use 
it unsparingly is a strong one. . . . Even if we don’t agree with him 
[Roosevelt’s opponent], it is not necessary either to cut him into 
little pieces or to break every bone in his body with the ‘big 
stick.’ ” 

This criticism appeared in the midst of Roosevelt’s presidential 
campaign (when he split the Republican party by trying to wrest 
the nomination from William Howard Taft, then formed his own 
Progressive, or Bull Moose, party to contest the election, thereby 
scattering the Republican vote and bringing victory to Democrat 
Woodrow Wilson). Surely, therefore, the statement must record 
one of Roosevelt’s innumerable squabbles during a tough politi- 
cal year. It does not. Francis H. Allen published these words in an 
ornithological journal, The Auk. He was writing about flamingos. 

When, as a cynical and posturing teenager, I visited Mount 
Rushmore, I gazed with some approval at the giant busts of 
Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, and then asked as so many 
others have — what in hell is Teddy Roosevelt doing up there? 
Never again shall I question his inclusion, for I have just discov- 
ered something sufficiently remarkable to warrant a sixty-foot 
stone likeness all by itself. In 191 1, an ex-president of the United 
States, after seven exhausting years in office, and in the throes of 
preparing his political comeback, found time to write and publish 



a technical scientific article, more than one hundred pages long: 
“Revealing and Concealing Coloration in Birds and Mammals.” 

Roosevelt wrote his article to demolish a theory proposed by 
the artist-naturalist Abbott H. Thayer (and defended by Mr. 
Allen, who castigated Roosevelt for bringing the rough language 
of politics into a scientific debate). In 1896 Thayer, as I shall 
document in a moment, correctly elucidated the important prin- 
ciple of countershading (a common adaptation that confers near 
invisibility upon predators or prey). But he then followed a com- 
mon path to perdition by slowly extending his valid theory to a 
doctrine of exclusivity. By 1909, Thayer was claiming that all ani- 
mal colors, from the peacock’s tail to the baboon’s rump, worked 
primarily for concealment. As a backbreaking straw that sealed 
his fate and inspired Roosevelt’s wrath, Thayer actually argued 
that natural selection made flamingos red, all the better to mimic 
the sunset. In the book that will stand forever as a monument to 
folly, to cockeyed genius, and to inspiration gone askew, Thayer 
stated in 1909 (in Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, writ- 
ten largely by his son Gerald H. Thayer and published by Macmil- 

These traditionally “showy” birds are, at their most critical 
moments, perfectly “obliterated” by their coloration. Con- 
spicuous in most cases, when looked at from above, as man 
is apt to see them, they are wonderfully fitted for “vanish- 
ment” against the flushed, rich-colored skies of early morn- 
ing and evening. 

Roosevelt responded with characteristic vigor in his 191 1 arti- 

Among all the wild absurdities to which Mr. Thayer has 
committed himself, probably the wildest is his theory that 
flamingos are concealingly colored because their foes mis- 
take them for sunsets. He has never studied flamingos in 
their haunts, he knows nothing personally of their habits or 
their enemies or their ways of avoiding their enemies . . . 
and certainly has never read anything to justify his sup- 
positions; these suppositions represent nothing but pure 
guesswork, and even to call them guesswork is a little over- 


conservative, for they come nearer to the obscure mental 
processes which are responsible for dreams. 

Roosevelt’s critique (and many others equally trenchant) 
sealed poor Thayer’s fate. In 1896, Thayer had begun his cam- 
paign with praise, promise, and panache (his outdoor demonstra- 
tions of disappearing decoys became legendary). He faced the 
dawn of World War I in despair and dejection (though the war 
itself brought limited vindication as our armies used his valid 
ideas in theories of camouflage). He lamented to a friend that his 
avocation (defending his theory of concealing coloration) had 
sapped his career: 

Never . . . have I felt less a painter ... I am like a man to 
whom is born, willy nilly, a child whose growth demanded 
his energies, he the while always dreaming that this growing 
offspring would soon go forth to seek his fortune and leave 
him to his profession, but the offspring again and again 
either unfolding some new faculties that must be nurtured 
and watched, or coming home and bursting into his par- 
ent’s studio, bleeding and bruised by an insulted world, 
continued to need attention so that there was nothing for it 
but to lay down the brush and take him once more into 
one’s lap. 

I must end this preface to my essay with a confession. I have 
known about Thayer’s “crazy” flamingo theory all my profes- 
sional life — and for a particular reason. It is the standard example 
always used by professors in introductory courses to illustrate 
illogic and unreason, and dismissed in a sentence with the ulti- 
mate weapon of intellectual nastiness — ridicule that forecloses 
understanding. When I began my research for this essay, I 
thought that I would write about absurdity, another comment on 
unthinking adaptationism. But my reading unleashed a cascade 
of discovery, leading me to Roosevelt and, more importantly, to 
the real Abbott Thayer, shorn of his symbolic burden. The fla- 
mingo theory is, of course, absurd — that will not change. But how 
and why did Thayer get there from an excellent start that the 
standard dismissive anecdote, Thayer’s unfortunate historical 
legacy, never acknowledges? The full story, if we try to under- 


stand Abbott Thayer aright, contains lessons that will more than 
compensate for laughter lost. 

Who was Abbott Handerson Thayer anyway? I had always as- 
sumed, from the name alone, that he was an eccentric Yankee 
who used wealth and social postion to gain a hearing for his ab- 
surd ideas. I could find nothing about him in the several scientific 
books that cite the flamingo story. I was about to give up when I 
located his name in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I found, to my 
astonishment, that Abbott Thayer was one of the most famous 
painters of late nineteenth century America (and an old Yankee 
to be sure, but not of the wealthy line of Thayers — see the biogra- 
phy by Nelson G. White, Abbott H. Thayer: Painter and Naturalist) . 
He specialized in ethereal women, crowned with suggestions of 
halos and accompanied by quintessentially innocent children. Art 
and science are both beset by fleeting tastes that wear poorly — far 
be it for me to judge. I had begun to uncover a human drama 
under the old pedagogical caricature. 

But let us begin, as they say, at the beginning. Standard ac- 
counts of the adaptive value of animal colors use three categories 
to classify nature’s useful patterns (no one has substantially im- 
proved upon the fine classic by Hugh B. Cott, Adaptive Coloration 
in Animals, 1940). According to Cott, adaptive colors and patterns 
may serve as (1) concealment (to shield an animal from predators 
or to hide the predator in nature’s never-ending game); (2) ad- 
vertisement, to scare potential predators (as in the prominent 
false eyespots of so many insects), to maintain territory or social 
position, or to announce sexual receptivity (as in baboon rump 
patches); and (3) disguise, as animals mimic unpalatable crea- 
tures to gain protection, or resemble an inanimate (and inedible) 
object (numerous leaf and stick insects, or a bittern, motionless 
and gazing skyward, lost amidst the reeds). Since disguise lies 
closer to advertisement than to concealment (a disguised animal 
does not try to look inconspicuous, but merely like something 
else), we can immediately appreciate Abbott Thayer’s difficulty. 
He wanted to reduce all three categories to the single purpose of 
concealment — but fully two-thirds of all color patterns, in con- 
ventional accounts, serve the opposite function of increased visi- 

Abbott Thayer, a native of Boston, began his artistic career in 
the maelstrom of New York City but eventually retreated to a 


hermitlike existence in rural New Hampshire, where his old inter- 
ests in natural history revived and deepened. As a committed 
Darwinian, he believed that all form and pattern must serve some 
crucial purpose in the unremitting struggle for existence. He also 
felt that, as a painter, he could interpret the colors of animals in 
ways and terms unknown to scientists. In 1896, Thayer published 
his first, landmark article in The Auk: “The Law Which Underlies 
Protective Coloration.” 

Of course, naturalists had recognized for centuries that many 
animals blend into their background and become virtually invisi- 
ble — but scientists had not properly recognized how and why. 
They tended to think, naively (as I confess I did before my re- 
search for this essay), that protection emerged from simple 
matching between animal and background. But Thayer correctly 
identified the primary method of concealment as countershad- 
ing — a device that makes creatures look flat. Animals must indeed 
share the right color and pattern with their background, but their 
ghostly disappearance records a loss of dimensionality, not just a 
matching of color. 

In countershading, an animal’s colors are precisely graded to 
counteract the effects of sunlight and shadow. Countershaded 
animals are darkest on top, where most sunlight falls, and lightest 
on the bottom (Thayer thereby identified the adaptive signifi- 
cance of fight bellies — perhaps the most universal feature of ani- 
mal coloration). The precise reversal between intensity of 
coloration and intensity of illumination neatly cancels out all 
shadow and produces a uniform color from top to bottom. As a 
result, the animal becomes flat, perfectly two-dimensional, and 
cannot be seen by observers who have, all their fives, perceived 
the substantiality of objects by shadow and shading. Artists have 
struggled for centuries to produce the illusion of depth and 
roundness on a flat canvas; nature has simply done the oppo- 
site — she shades in reverse in order to produce an illusion of 
flatness in a three-dimensional world. 

Contrasting his novel principle of countershading with older 
ideas about mimicry, Thayer wrote in his original statement of 
1896: “Mimicry makes an animal appear to be some other thing, 
whereas the newly discovered law makes him cease to appear to 
exist at all.” 

Thayer, intoxicated with the joy of discovery, attributed his 


success to his chosen profession and advanced a strong argument 
about the dangers of specialization and the particular value of 
“outsiders” to any held of study. He wrote in 1903: “Nature has 
evolved actual art on the bodies of animals, and only an artist can 
read it.” And later, in his 1909 book, but now with the defensive- 
ness and pugnacity that marked his retreat: 

The entire matter has been in the hands of the wrong cus- 
todians. ... It properly belongs to the realm of pictorial art, 
and can be interpreted only by painters. For it deals wholly 
in optical illusion, and this is the very gist of a painter’s life. 

He is born with a sense of it; and, from his cradle to his 
grave, his eyes, wherever they turn, are unceasingly at work 
on it — and his pictures live by it. What wonder, then, if it 
was for him alone to discover that the very art he practices is 
at full — beyond the most delicate precision of human pow- 
ers — on almost all animals. 

So far, so good. Thayer’s first articles and outdoor demonstra- 
tions won praise from scientists. He began with relatively modest 
claims, arguing that he had elucidated the basis for a major prin- 
ciple of concealment but not denying that other patterns of color 
displayed quite different selective value. Initially, he accepted the 
other two traditional categories — revealing coloration and mim- 
icry — though he always argued that concealment would gain a far 
bigger scope than previously admitted. In his most technical 
paper, published in the Transactions of the Entomological Society of 
London (1903), and introduced favorably by the great English 
Darwinian E. B. Poulton, Thayer wrote: 

Every possible form of advantageous adaptation must 
somewhere exist. . . . There must be unpalatability accom- 
panied by warning coloration . . . and equally plain that 
there must be mimicry. 

Indeed, Thayer sought ways to combine ideas of concealment 
with other categories that he would later deny. He supported, for 
example, the ingenious speculation of C. Hart Merriam that 
white rump patches are normally revealing, but that their true 


value lies in a deer’s ability to “erase” the color at moments of 
danger — a deer “closes down” the patch by lowering its tail over 
the white blotch and then disappears, invisible, into the forest. In 
his 1909 book, however, Thayer explicitly repudiated this earlier 
interpretation and argued for pure concealment — the white 
patch as “sky mimicking” when seen from below. 

Thayer’s pathway from insight to ridicule followed a distress- 
ingly common route among intellectuals. Countershading for 
concealment, amidst a host of alternatives, was not enough. 
Thayer had to have it all. Little by little, plausibly at first, but 
grading slowly to red wings in the sunset, Thayer laid his battle 
plans (not an inappropriate metaphor for a father of camouflage). 
As article succeeded article, Thayer progressively invaded the 
categories of mimicry and revealing coloration to gain, or so he 
thought, more cases for concealment. Finally, nothing else re- 
mained: All patterns of color served to conceal. He wrote in his 
book: “All patterns and colors whatsoever of all animals that ever 
prey or are preyed upon are under certain normal circumstances 

Thayer made his first fateful step in his technical article of 
1903. Here, he claimed a second major category of concealing 
coloration — what he called “ruptive” (we now call them “disrup- 
tive”) bars, stripes, splotches, and other assorted markings. Dis- 
ruptive markings make an animal “disappear” by a route 
different from countershading. They break an animal’s coherent 
outline and produce an insubstantial array of curious and un- 
related patches (this principle, more than countershading, be- 
came important in military camouflage). A zebra, Thayer argues, 
does not mimic the reeds in which it hides; rather, the stripes 
break the animal’s outline into bars of light and darkness — and 
predators see no coherent prey at all. 

Again, Thayer had proposed a good idea for some, even many, 
cases (though not for zebras, who rarely venture into fields of 
reeds). His 1903 article argues primarily that butterflies carry 
disruptive pictures of flowers and background scenery upon their 
wings: “The general aspect of each animal’s environment,” 
Thayer wrote, “is found painted upon his coat, in such a way as to 
minimize his visibility, by making the beholder think he sees 
through him.” 


But, amidst his good suggestions, Thayer had made his first 
overextended argument. Countershading could scarcely he mis- 
taken for anything else and offered little scope for claiming too 
much. But the principle of “ruptive” concealment permitted 
enormous scope for encompassing other patterns that actually 
serve to reveal or mimic. Color patches and splotches — the clas- 
sic domain of warning and revealing patterns (consider the pea- 
cock’s tail) — could, for an overenthusiast like Thayer, become 
marks of disruptive concealment. Thus, to cite just one example 
of overstatement, Thayer argued in a 1909 article, adversarily 
entitled “An Arraignment of the Theories of Mimicry and Warn- 
ing Colors,” that white patches on a skunk's head mimic the sky 
when seen by mice from below: 

Such . . . victims as can see would certainly have much more 
chance to escape were not what would be a dark-looming 
predator’s head converted, by its white sky-counterfeiting, 
into a deceptive imitation of mere sky. 

Still, by 1903, Thayer was not yet ready to claim concealment 
for all colors. He admitted one category of obvious conspicuous- 
ness: “Only unshiny, bright monochrome is intrinsically a reveal- 
ing coloration.” 

Now we can finally understand why Thayer was eventually 
driven to his absurd argument about flamingos and the sunset. 
(Divorced from the context of Thayer’s own personal develop- 
ment, the idea sounds like simple disembodied craziness — as 
professors always present it for laughs in introductory classes.) 
Once Thayer decided to go for broke, and to claim that all color 
works for concealment, flamingos became his crucial test, his do- 
or-die attempt at exclusivity. As a last shackle before the final 
plunge, Thayer had admitted that stark monochromes — animals 
painted throughout with one showy color — were “intrinsically 
revealing.” If he could now show that such monochromes also 
served for concealment, then his triumph would be complete. 
Flamingos occupied the center of his daring, not a curious diver- 
sion. He had to find a way to fade bright red into ethereal noth- 
ingness. Hence the sunset — his as well as the flamingo’s. 

So Thayer visited the West Indies, got down on his bellv in the 


sulfurous muds, and looked at flamingos — not comfortably down 
from above (as he always accused lazy and uncritical zoologists of 
doing), but from the side as might a slithering anaconda or a 
hungry alligator. And he saw red wings fading into the sunset — 
the entire feeding flock became a pink cloud, a “sky-matching 

These birds are largely nocturnal, so that the only sky bright 
enough to show any color upon them is the more or less 
rosy and golden one that surrounds them from sunset till 
dark and from dawn until soon after sunrise. They com- 
monly feed in immense, open lagoons, wading in vast pha- 
lanxes, while the entire real sky above them and its reflected 
duplicate below them constitute either one vast hollow 
sphere of gold, rose, and salmon, or at least glow, on one 
side or the other, with these tones. Their whole plumage is a 
most exquisite duplicate of these scenes. . . . This flamingo, 
having at his feeding time so nearly only sunrise colors to 
match, wears, as he does, a wonderful imitation of them. 

Thayer had Anally gone too far and exasperated even his erst- 
while supporters. His exaggerations — particularly his flamin- 
gos — now brought down a storm of criticism, including 
Roosevelt’s hundred-page barrage. Critics pointed out Thayer’s 
errors in every particular: Flamingos do not concentrate their 
feeding at dawn and dusk, but are active all day; anacondas and 
alligators do not inhabit the thin Alms of saline ponds that fla- 
mingos favor; flamingos eat by filtering tiny eyeless animals that 
cannot enjoy the visual pleasures of sunset. 

Most sadly, Thayer’s argument even failed in its own terms — 
and Thayer, who was overenthusiastic to a fault, but neither dis- 
honest nor dishonorable, had to confess. Any object viewed 
against the fading light will appear dark, whatever its actual color. 
Thayer admitted this explicitly by painting a dark palm tree 
against the sunset in his infamous and fanciful painting of fading 
flamingos (reproduced here, for unfortunate practical reasons, in 
inappropriate black and white). Thus, he could only claim that 
flamingos looked like the sunset in the opposite side of the sky: red 
clouds of sunset in the west, red masses of flamingos in the east. 


Would any animal be so confused by two “sunsets,” with flamin- 
gos showing dark against the real McCoy? Thayer admitted in his 
1909 book: 

Of course a flamingo seen against dawn or evening sky 
would look dark, like the palm in the lower left-hand figure, 
no matter what his colors were, d he . . . right-hand figures, 
then, represent the lighted sides of flamingos at morning or 
evening, and show how closely these tend to reproduce the 
sky of this time of day; although always, of course, in the 

White (top) and red (bottom) flamingos fade to invisibility against the 
sky at sunrise and sunset. From Thayer’s 1909 book. 



opposite quarter of the heavens [Thayer was good enough to 
underline his admission] from the sunset or dawn itself. 

As a final, and feeble, parting salvo, Thayer added: “but the rosy 
hues very commonly suffuse both sides of the sky, so that . . . the 
flamingos’ illuminated ruddy color very often has a true ‘back- 
ground’ of illuminated ruddy sky.” 

Teddy Roosevelt was particularly perturbed. As an old big- 
game hunter, he knew that most of Thayer’s “ruptive” patterns 
did not conceal quarries. How could Thayer have it both ways — 
how could a lion be concealed in the desert, a zebra amongst the 
reeds when, in fact, they share the same habitat, often to the 
zebra’s fatal disadvantage? Thus, Roosevelt decided to counter- 
attack and wrote his scientific magnum opus during some spare 
time amidst other chores. He saved his best invective for the poor 
flamingos. Writing on February 2, 191 1, to University of Califor- 
nia biologist Charles Kofoid, he stated: 

[Thayer’s] book shows such a fantastic quality of mind on 
his part that it is a matter of very real surprise to me that any 
scientific observer ... no matter how much credit he may 
give to Mr. Thayer for certain discoveries and theories, 
should fail to enter the most emphatic protest against the 
utter looseness and wildness of his theorizing. Think of 
being seriously required to consider the theory that fla- 
mingos are colored red so that fishes (or oysters for that 
matter — there is no absurdity of which Mr. Thayer could 
not be capable) would mistake them for the sunset! 

The debate between Roosevelt and Thayer developed into an 
interesting discussion of scientific methodology, not merely 
some rhetorical sniping about specifics. To grasp Roosevelt’s pri- 
marily methodological (and cogent) objections to Thayer’s work, 
consider Thayer’s most remarkable painting of all — the frontis- 
piece to his 1909 book, showing a peacock obliterated in the 
foliage. Here, Thayer argues that every nuance of a peacock’s 
coloration increases his concealment in a particular bit of habi- 
tat — the combined effect adding to invisibility. Given the usual 
interpretation of a peacock’s color as revealing, and the gaudy 
impression that he makes both upon us and, one must assume, 


the peahen, Thayer’s interpretation represents quite a departure 
from tradition and common sense: 

The peacock’s splendor is the effect of a marvelous combi- 
nation of “obliterative” designs, in forest-colors and pat- 
terns. ... All imaginable forest-tones are to be found in this 

A peacock in the woods, showing how, in at least one highly 
peculiar position, each “showy” feature can help blend the 
bird into invisibility. From Thayer’s 1909 book. neg. no. 



bird’s costume; and they “melt” him into the scene to a 

degree past all human analysis. 

Thayer then positions his bird so precisely that all features 
blend with surroundings. He paints the blue neck against a gap in 
the foliage, so that it may mimic “blue sky seen through the 
leaves.” He matches the golden greens and browns of the back to 
forest tones. He depicts the white cheek patch as a “ruptive” hole 
that disaggregates the face. He paints the celebrated ocelli (eye- 
spots) of the tail feathers as leaf mimics. He also notes that ocelli 
are smallest and dimmest near the body, grading to larger and 
brighter toward the rear end: “They inevitably lead the eye away 
from the bird, till it finds itself straying amid the foliage beyond 
the tail’s evanescent border.” The spread tail, he claims, may 
impress the peahen, but it “looks also very much like a shrub 
bearing some kind of fruit or flower.” Finally, he argues that the 
tail’s coppery brown color represents perfectly “the bare ground 
and tree-trunks seen between the leaves.” 

What a tour de force, but what can we possibly make of such 
special pleading? Who would doubt that some conceivable habi- 
tat might conceal almost any animal? Note how precisely the pea- 
cock must choose his spot to receive the cryptic benefit that 
Thayer wishes to confer upon him. In particular, he must always 
place his shimmering blue neck in a gap amidst the foliage where 
it will vanish against a clear sky (but what does he do on a cloudy 
day, or in a bush so dense that no holes exist, as seen from all 
relevant directions at once?). Peacocks, in any case, live primarily 
in open fields. Their spreading display is a glory to behold — and 
the very opposite of invisible. 

Thayer, of course, knew all this. He didn’t claim (as his critics 
sometimes charged) that a habitat offering protection by conceal- 
ment must be the usual, or even a common, haunt of its invisible 
beneficiary. Thayer simply argued that such protection might be 
important at critical moments occurring only once or twice in an 
animal’s lifetime — at crucial instants of impending death from a 
stalking predator. 

But how could odd and improbable moments shape such com- 
plex and intricate patterns as the innumerable details of a pea- 
cock’s design? With this question, we finally arrive at the key 
theoretical issue of this debate — the power of natural selection 


itself. In order to believe that complex designs might be con- 
structed by such rare and momentary benefits as sunsets or par- 
ticular positions in trees outside an animal’s normal habitat, one 
must have an overarching faith in the power of natural selection. 
Selection must be so potent that even the rarest of benefits will 
eventually be engraved into the optimal designs of organisms. 
Thayer had this faith; Roosevelt, and most biologists then and 
since, did not. Thayer wrote in 1900: “Of course, to any one who 
feels the inevitability of natural selection, it is obvious that each 
organ or structural detail, and likewise each quality of organic 
forms, owes its existence to the sum of all its uses.” Thayer then 
laid it on the line in stark epitome — patterns of color are built by 
natural selection, “pure, simple, and omnipotent.” 

Roosevelt and other acute critics correctly identified the cen- 
tral flaw in Thayer’s science — not in his numerous factual errors, 
but in his methodology. Thayer found a hiding place for all his 
animals but with a method that made his theory untestable and 
therefore useless to science. Thayer insisted that he had proved 
his point simply by finding any spot that rendered an animal in- 
visible. He didn’t need to show that the creature usually fre- 
quented such a place or that the location formed part of a natural 
habitat at all. For the animal might seek its spot only in the rarest 
moments of need. But how then could we disprove any of 
Thayer’s claims? We might work for years to show that an animal 
never entered its domain of invisibility, and Thayer would reply: 
Wait till tomorrow when urgent need arises. Scientists are 
trained to avoid such special pleading because it exerts a chilling 
and stupefying effect upon hypotheses, by rendering them invul- 
nerable to test and potential disproof. Doing is the soul of science 
and we reject hypotheses that condemn us to impotence. 

T. Barbour, former director of Harvard’s Museum of Compar- 
ative Zoology (where I now sit composing this piece), and J. C. 
Phillips emphasized this point in reviewing Thayer’s book in 

Acquiescence in Mr. Thayer’s views throws a pall over the 
entire subject of animal coloration. Investigation is dis- 
couraged; and we find jumbled together a great mass of 
fascinating and extremely complicated data, all simply ex- 


plained by one dogmatic assertion. For we are asked to be- 
lieve that an animal is protectively clothed whether he is like 
his surroundings, or whether he is very unlike them (oblit- 
eratively marked) or . . . if he falls between these two classes, 
there is still plenty of space to receive him. 

Teddy Roosevelt addressed the same issue with more vigor in a 
letter to Thayer on March 19, 1912 (just imagine any presidential 
candidate taking time out to pursue natural history more than a 
month after the New Hampshire primary — oh, I know, campaigns 
were shorter then): 

There is in Africa a blue rump baboon. It is also true that 
the Mediterranean Sea bounds one side of Africa. If you 
should make a series of experiments tending to show that if 
the blue rump baboon stood on its head by the Mediterra- 
nean you would mix up his rump and the Mediterranean, 
you might be illustrating something in optics, but you 
would not be illustrating anything that had any bearing 
whatsoever on the part played by the coloration of the ani- 
mal in actual life. . . . My dear Mr. Thayer, if you would face 
facts, you might really help in elucidating some of the prob- 
lems before me, but you can do nothing but mischief, and 
not very much of that, when conducting such experiments. 

. . . Your experiments are of no more real value than the 
experiment of putting a raven in a coal scuttle, and then 
claiming that he is concealed. 

Contemporary (and later) accounts of Thayer’s debacle rest 
largely upon a red herring, concealed in more than the sunset, 
that will not explain his failure and only reinforces a common and 
harmful stereotype about the intrinsic differences among intel- 
lectual styles. In short, we are told that Abbott Thayer ultimately 
failed because he possessed an artist’s temperament — good for 
an initial insight perhaps, but with no staying power for the hard 
(and often dull) work of real science. 

Such charges were often lodged against Thayer, and with un- 
doubted rhetorical effect, but they represent a dangerous use of 
ad hominem argument with anti-intellectual overtones. Thayer 


may have laid himself open to such ridicule with a passionate 
temperament that he made no effort to control in a more formal 
age. John Jay Chapman, the acerbic essayist, wrote of Thayer 
(admittedly in a fit of pique when his wife, at his great displea- 
sure, decided to study art in Thayer’s studio): 

Thayer by the way, is a hipped egoist who paints three 
hours, has a headache, walks four hours — holds his own 
pulse, wants to save his sacred light for the world, cares for 
nobody, and has fits of dejection during which forty women 
hold his hand and tell him not to despair — for humanity’s 

But is such passion the exclusive birthright of artists? I have 
known many scientists equally insufferable. 

Thayer’s scientific critics also raised the charge of artistic 
temperament. Roosevelt wrote, in a statement that might have 
attracted more attention in our litigious age: Thayer’s misstate- 
ments “are due to the enthusiasm of a certain type of artistic 
temperament, an enthusiasm also known to certain types of 
scientific and business temperaments, and which when it mani- 
fests itself in business is sure to bring the owner into trouble as if 
he were guilty of deliberate misconduct.” Barbour and Phillips 
argued that Mr. Thayer, in his enthusiasm, has ignored or 
glossed over with an artistic haze. . . . This method of persuasion, 
while it does appeal to the public, is— there is no other word- 
simple charlatanry however unwitting.” Barbour and Phillips 
then defended the cold light of dispassionate science in a bit of 
self-serving puffery: 

[Our statements] are simply the impressions made upon 
open-minded observers who have no axe to grind, and who 
have no reason to take sides on the question, one way or 
another. They have been written in a friendly spirit, and we 
hope they will be received in the same way. 

Do friendly spirits ever accuse their opponents of “simple charla- 

The charge of artistic temperament may be convenient and 


effective, especially since it appeals to a common stereotype — but 
it won't wash. The facile interpretation that scientists wouldn’t 
give Thayer a hearing because he was an “outsider” won’t work 
either — for contemporary accounts belie such charges of ter- 
ritoriality and narrowness. Even though Thayer made such 
strong claims — quoted above — for scientists’ incompetence in a 
domain accessible only to artists, naturalists welcomed his in- 
sights about countershading and enjoyed both his initial articles 
and his outdoor demonstrations. E. B. Boulton, one of England's 
greatest evolutionists, warmly supported Thayer and wrote intro- 
ductions to his publications. Frank M. Chapman, great ornitholo- 
gist and editor of The Auk, wrote in his Autobiography of a Bird 

As an editor, doubtless my most notable contributions to 
the Auk’s pages were Abbott Thayer’s classical papers on 
protective coloration. ... I knew little of Thayer’s eminence 
as an artist. It was the man himself who impressed me by the 
overwhelming force of his personality, ffe made direct and 
inescapable demands on one’s attention. He was intensely 
vital and lived normally at heights which I reached only oc- 
casionally and then only for short periods. 

T hayer’s ultimate failure reflects a more universal tendency, 
distributed without reference to profession among all kinds of 
people. Nothing but habit and tradition separate the “two cul- 
tures” of humanities and science. T he processes of thought and 
modes of reason are similar — so are the people. Only subject 
matter differs. Science may usually treat the world’s empirical 
information; art may thrive on aesthetic judgment. But scientists 
also traffic in ideas and opinions, and artists surely respect fact. 

The idee fixe is a common intellectual fault of all professions, 
not a characteristic failure of artists. I have often written about 
scientists as single-mindedly committed to absurd unities and 
false simplifications as T hayer was devoted to the exclusivity of 
concealing coloration in nature. Some are charming and a bit 
dotty — such as old Randolph Kirkpatrick, who thought that all 
rocks were made of single-celled nummulospheres (see Essay 22 
in The Panda Is Thumb, 1980). Others are devious and more than a 


bit dangerous — such as Cyril Burt, who fabricated data to prove 
that all intelligence resided in heredity (see my book The Mismeas- 
ure of Man). 

Abbott Thayer had an idee fixe; he burned with desire to reduce 
a messy and complex world to one beautiful, simple principle of 
explanation. Such monistic schemes never work. History has 
built irreducible complexity and variety into the bounteous world 
of organisms. Diversity reigns at the superficial level of overt phe- 
nomena — animal colors serve many different functions. The uni- 
fying principles are deeper and more abstract — may I suggest 
evolution itself for starters. 


Abbott H. Thayer extended his flamingo theory ever further than 
I had realized. Historian of science Sharon Kingsland, who wrote 
an excellent technical article on “Abbott Thayer and the Protec- 
tive Coloration Debate” in 1978 (and who therefore would have 
made my own work ever so much easier had I know n of her prior 
efforts), sent me a 1911 note by Thayer triumphantly announcing 
a new genre of paintings with backgrounds made from the actual 
skins of animals supposedly concealed by their colors and mark- 
ings. Thayer wrote, including flamingos of course: 

The public will soon be astonished when I show them a 
dawn picture made out of the entire skin of one of these 
birds [flamingos] simply “mosaicked” into the sky of a 
painting of one of their lagoons. I am now making such a 
picture. I have already nearly finished a picture of a Hima- 
layan gorge made wholly of the skins of Monaul pheasants; 
and another one of a New Hampshire snow scene similarly 
done with magpies. Artists are positively amazed by both of 

On a more practical and positive note, I learned from my corre- 
spondents that Thayer’s views on concealment were far more 


important in the history of naval camouflage than I had realized 
or that the biological literature had recorded. I received two fas- 
cinating letters from Lewis R. Melson, USNR. He wrote: 

Many years ago, I was summarily ordered to assume the 
responsibility for directing the efforts of the U.S. Navy’s 
Ship Concealment and Camouflage Division, relieving the 
genius who had guided this effort throughout World War 
II, Commander Dayton Reginald Evans Brown. Dayton had 
perfected the camouflage patterns employed on all naval 
ships and aircraft throughout the war. In his briefing of 
what I could expect in directing the continuation of his 
work, I found his theories and designs were based upon 
Abbott H. Thayer’s earlier work in the field of concealment 
and camouflage. . . . Despite whatever everyone thought 
and thinks about Thayer’s theories, both his “protective 
coloration’’ and “ruptive” designs were vital for concealing 
ships and aircraft. 

Melson continued: 

All naval concealment and camouflage is designed for pro- 
tection against the horizon in the case of shipping and ei- 
ther for concealment against a sea or sky background, again 
at long ranges, for aircraft. [Note from my essay how much 
of Thayer’s work involved “disappearance” of an image 
seen against the sky or horizon.] Thayer’s “protective color- 
ation” designs were outstanding for aircraft, light under- 
sides and dark above [as fish, seen from below by their 
predators, tend to display]. Ship concealment for temperate 
and tropical oceans employed the “protective coloration” 
designs, while “ruptive” or “disruptive” designs worked 
best against polar backgrounds. 

Melson also taught me some history of camouflage during the 
two world wars. Despite our later and fruitful use in World War 
II, the U.S. Navy had originally rejected Thayer’s proposal dur- 
ing World War I. However, Thayer had greater success in Brit- 
ain, where his designs proved highly valuable during the First 
World War. Melson wrote: 


Thayer’s suggestions . . . called for very light colored ships 
using broken patterns of white and pale blue. The intent of 
this pattern was to blend the ship against the background at 
night and in overcast weather. In the high northern lati- 
tudes surrounding the British Isles with its frequent storms, 
fogs, and long periods of darkness, these patterns proved 
very successful. HMS Broke was the first ship so painted and 
it was rammed twice by sister ships of the Royal Navy, whose 
captains protested that they had been unable to see Broke. 

Melson ended his letter with a fine affirmation of potential in- 
teraction between pure and applied science: 

Thanks again for the article on Thayer. It will join my 
mementos of those heady days when we were able to con- 
tribute bits and pieces to the world of science and engineer- 

Petrus Camper’s Angle 

i remember watching Toscanini, a little old man 
made even smaller on the tiny screen of our first television set. I 
understood nothing of classical music when I was nine, but Tos- 
canini’s intensity nearly moved me to tears — a man older than my 
grandfather and scarcely bigger than me, drawing such concerted 
sound from his players. I remember how he stepped off the po- 
dium after each piece and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. 

Classical music had little currency in those days just before the 
long-playing record. In television’s only other foray into this ar- 
cane world, we could watch the annual Christmas presentation of 
Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Amahl, the young 
cripple with a passion for embellishment, tells his mother that 
two kings are outside, requesting entry to their humble cottage. 
She chides him, laments his disinclination to speak truly, and 
sends him to the door again. Amahl returns to admit that, indeed, 
two kings do not stand outside. His mother rejoices, but Amahl 
proclaims: “There are three kings . . . and one of them is black.” 

I remembered this line when I started to visit art museums 
much later and soon realized that Menotti had been following an 
old tradition, not making a modern plea for racial harmony. One 
of the Magi is always depicted as a black man. This traditional 
iconography is not biblical, but a later interpretation. The gospel 
writers do not even specify the number of wise men who saw the 
star in the east and came to worship. Some early sources cite up 
to twelve, but the number soon stabilized at three. Later, this trio 
received names — Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar, first specified 
in a sixth-century mosaic in Ravenna — and then, symbolic inter- 



pretations. As these allegories moved from the specific to the 
general, the portrayal of one Magus as black stabilized. The three 
were first seen as kings of Arabia, Persia, and India, then (by the 
Venerable Bede, for example) as symbols for the three great con- 
tinents of Africa, Europe, and Asia, and finally, as representatives 
of the three major human races: white, yellow, and black. 

I was reminded of this iconographical tidbit recently as I read 
one of the classic works of physical anthropology — the historical 
beginning of scientific measurement of the human skull. Petrus 
Camper, Dutch anatomist and painter, was born in Leiden in 
1722. He studied both art and science, then trained as a midwife 
before receiving his degree as a physician. (Men may be mid- 
wives. The name refers to a person, male or female, who stays 
with \mit, as in modern German] a woman [unf \ during birth — so 
the female end of the etymology refers to the mother, not the 
attendant.) In 1755, he became a professor of anatomy in Am- 
sterdam and spent the rest of his comfortable life alternating 
between his country home and his professional duties in Amster- 
dam and Groningen. Camper, who discovered the air spaces in 
bird bones and studied the hearing of fishes and the croaking of 
frogs, was revered as one of the great intellects of Europe during 
his own lifetime. The busy life that such attention brings, made 
even more hectic by the political career that he forged during his 
later years, left Camper little time to write and publish his scien- 
tific studies. At his death in 1789, he left his major work on the 
measurement of human anatomy in manuscript. His son pub- 
lished this posthumous document in 1791, both in the original 
Dutch and in French translation. (I read the French, an edition 
printed in Utrecht, presumably by typesetters who didn't know 
the language, and so full of errors that I almost decided it might 
be easier to learn Dutch and work from the other version.) 

This work bears an extended title, both characteristic of the 
age and expressive of the contents: Physical dissertation on the real 
differences that men of different countries and ages display in their facial 
traits; on the beauty that characterizes the statues and engraved stones of 
antiquity; followed by the proposition of a new method for drawing human 
heads with the greatest accuracy. Camper’s treatise is remembered 
today for one primary achievement— the definition of the so- 
called facial angle, the first widely accepted measurement for 
comparing the skulls of different races and nationalities. 


Illustration from Camper’s original work showing increasing value for 
the facial angle of (left to right) an ape, an African, and a Grecian head. 


Camper’s facial angle is the traditional beginning of craniometry, 
or the science of measuring human skulls, a major subdiscipline 
of physical anthropology. 

The human skull may be divided into two basic components: 
the vault of the cranium itself and the face in front. Camper’s 
facial angle sought to specify the relationship between these two 
parts. Camper first drew a line connecting the ear opening with 
the base of the nose (the so-called horizontal, or “h-k” on his 
illustration of an African head). He then constructed another line 
joining the most forward projection of the upper jaw (the bottom 
of the upper lip in living heads, usually the edge of the incisor 
teeth on skulls) with the most protruding point of the brow above 
the eyes (“h-n” on his African head), and called ever since the 
facial line. Camper then defined the facial angle as the intersec- 


tion of the horizontal (his basis of reference) with the facial line 
(roughly, the forward slant of the face). 

In a general way, the facial angle measures the relative flatness 
versus forward extension of the face. A low value means that the 
jaws extend far in front of the cranial vault, giving the entire skull 
a sloping appearance. A high value indicates a flat face with jaws 
projecting no farther forward than the brow itself. When a facial 
angle exceeds 90 degrees, the vault of the cranium projects far- 
ther forward than the underlying jaws. 

The facial angle soon became the first widely accepted tool for 
quantitative comparison of human skulls. It spawned an immense 
literature, a host of proposals for slight improvements based on 
different criteria, and a bevy of instruments designed to measure 
this fundamental aspect of human life. Camper’s angle became 
the first quantitative device for establishing invidious compari- 
sons, based on inherent distinctions, among human races. The 
early craniometricians reported that African blacks possessed the 
lowest facial angles (farthest forward projection of the jaws), with 
Orientals in the middle, and Europeans on top, with facial angles 
sometimes approaching 90 degrees. Since apes had facial angles 
even lower than blacks, and since the facial angles for ancient 
statues of Greek deities exceeded those of all living Europeans, 
the smooth ascent from monkey to majesty seemed assured. His- 
torian John S. Haller writes: 

The facial angle was the most extensively elaborated and 
artlessly abused criterion for racial somatology. ... By 1860 
the facial angle had become the most frequent means of 
explaining the graduation of species. Like the Chain of 
Being, the races of man consisted of an ordered hierarchy in 
which the Hottentot, the Kaffir, the Chinaman, and the In- 
dian held a specific position in the order of life. 

I had never read Camper’s original definition of the facial angle 
or his own recommendations for its use and meaning. Neither 
had most of the nineteenth-century craniometricians who estab- 
lished the facial angle as a primary instrument of scientific racism 
(Camper’s posthumous work has always been rare and difficult to 
obtain). I am no longer surprised when the study of a neglected 
original shows, as in this case, that later interpretations departed 


from an author s own intentions. Such stories cannot rank as 
news; they fall into the category of “dog bites man.” And besides, 
maybe the later readings were correct and the initial proposal 
wrong — good insights for bad reasons are legion in the world of 

The story of Camper’s own interpretation of his facial angle is 
interesting for another reason. I he archaeology of knowledge 
assumes greatest importance when it seeks new insights from our 
past. By cultural heritage and proven reliability, we approach 
problems in a set of stereotyped ways and often assume (follow- 
ing the cardinal sin of pride) that our modern conventions ex- 
haust the domain of possible inquiry. We should study the past 
for the simplest of reasons — to increase our “sample size” in 
modes of thought, for we need all the help we can get. Camper’s 
own rationale is instructive because it departs fundamentally 
from the sociology and a conceptual basis of modern scientific 
inquiry into human variability. We should recover and under- 
stand Camper’s reasoning both to pay proper respect to a fine 
thinker and to expand our own sense of possibility. 

Camper did not define the facial angle as a device for ranking 
races or nations by innate worth or intellect. He did not even 
approach the problem of human variability with motives that we 
would now recognize as scientific. In Camper’s day, anthropol- 
ogy did not exist as a discipline; science had not been defined, 
either as a word or as a separate domain of knowledge. Scholars 
often worked simultaneously in areas now walled off into sepa- 
rate faculties of universities. Such “cross-disciplinary” work 
seemed neither odd nor prodigious to eighteenth-century 

Camper was a professor of anatomy and medicine, but he was 
also an accomplished artist, good enough to win admission to the 
Painter’s Academy during a long visit to England ( 1 748 to 1 750). 
Camper defined his facial angle with the requisite precision of 
geometry and the quantitative preferences of science, but his mo- 
tive lay in the domain of art. (He saw no contradiction, and nei- 
ther should we.) We may now return to the issue of the black 
Magus and to Camper’s own statement about his intentions. 

Camper tells us right at the outset of his treatise that his desire 
to quantify human variation first arose in response to a minor 
annoyance with Western painting. He had studied the black 


Magus in many classical paintings and noted that, while his color 
matched the hues of Africa, his face almost always displayed the 
features of European whites — a kind of Renaissance minstrel 
show with whites in blackface. (Since few Africans then lived in 
Europe, Camper reasoned that most artists had used white mod- 
els, faithfully copying the facial features of a European and then 
painting the figure black.) 

Camper wanted to prevent such errors by establishing a set of 
simple guidelines (lengths and angles) to define the chief charac- 
ters of each human group. His treatise devotes more space to 
differences between old and young than to disparity among races 
or nations — for Camper was also distressed that the infant Jesus 
had often been drawn from an older model (no photographic 
surrogates to keep a baby’s image still in Camper’s day). 

Yet Camper did not locate his immediate motive for the facial 
angle in descriptive anthropology of actual humans, but in a 
much loftier problem — no less than the definition of beauty itself. 
Like so many of his contemporaries, Camper believed that the 
cultures of ancient Greece and Rome had reached a height of 
refinement never since repeated and perhaps not even subject to 
recapture. (This is a difficult concept to grasp in the light of our 
later cultural preference for progress as a feature of technologi- 
cal history — old must mean inferior. But our forebears were not 
so encumbered, and ideas of a previous golden age, surpassing 
anything achieved since, had great power and attraction. The 
Renaissance [literally, rebirth] received its name from this con- 
viction, and its heroes were trying, or so they thought, to recap- 
ture the knowledge and glory of antiquity, not to create novel 
improvements in art or architecture.) 

Camper was obsessed with a particular issue arising from this 
reverence for antiquity. We can all agree, he states, that the great 
sculptors of ancient Greece achieved a beauty and nobility that 
we have not been able to match in our new art or often even to 
duplicate in simple attempts to copy ancient statues. One might 
take the easy route out of this dilemma and argue that Phidias and 
his brethren were just good copyists and that the people of an- 
cient Greece surpassed all modern folk in beauty and proportion. 
But Camper had evidence against this proposition, for he noted 
that the few Greek attempts at actual portraiture (on coins, for 
example) showed people much like ourselves, warts and all. 


Moreover, the Greeks had made no secret of their preference for 
idealization. Camper quotes Lysippus’s desire “not to represent 
men as they are, but as they present themselves to our imagina- 
tion.” “The ideal of Antique Beauty,” Camper writes, “does not 
exist in nature; it is purely a concept of the imagination.” 

But how shall we define this ideal of beauty? Camper traces the 
sorry attempts by poets, artists, and philosophers throughout the 
centuries. He notes that, in the absence of a firm criterion, each 
field has tried to fob off the definition by analogy — poets exem- 
plify beauty by reference to art; artists by reference to poetry. 
Explicit attempts often foundered in nonsense, as in this example 
from 1584: “Beauty is only beautiful by its own beauty,” a motto 
that inspired Camper’s appropriate riposte, “Can there be a 
greater absurdity?” 

And yet, Camper argues, we all agree about the beauty of cer- 
tain objects, so some common criterion must exist. He writes: 

A beautiful starry sky pleases everyone. A sunrise, a calm 
sea, excites a sensation of pleasure in all people, and we all 
agree that these phenomena convey an impression of 

Camper therefore decided to abandon the overarching at- 
tempts that had always devolved into nonsense and to concen- 
trate instead on something specific that might be defined 
precisely — the human head. 

Again he argues (incorrectly, 1 think, but I am explicating, not 
judging) that common standards exist and that, in particular, we 
all agree about the maximal beauty of Grecian statuary: 

We will not find a single person who does not regard the 
head of Apollo or Venus as possessing a superior Beauty, 
and who does not view these heads as infinitely superior to 
those of the most beautiful men and women [of our day]. 

Since the Greek achievement involved abstraction, not portrai- 
ture, some secret knowledge must have allowed them to improve 
the actual human form. Camper longed to recover their rule 
book. He did not doubt that the great sculptures of antiquity had 
proceeded by mathematical formulas, not simple intuition — for 


proportion and harmony, geometrically expressed, were hall- 
marks of Greek thought. Camper would, therefore, try to infer 
their physical rules of ratios and angles: “It is difficult to imitate 
the truly sublime beauty that characterizes Antiquity until we 
have discovered the true physical reasons on which it was 

Camper therefore devised an ingenious method of inference 
(also a good illustration of the primary counterintuitive principle 
that marks true excellence in science). When faced with a grand 
(but intractable) issue — like the definition of beauty — don’t seek 
the ultimate, general solution; find a corner that can be defined 
precisely and, as our new cliche proclaims, go for it. He decided 
to draw, in profile and with great precision, a range of human 
heads spanning nations and ages. He would then characterize 
these heads by various angles and ratios, trying to establish sim- 
ple gradations from what we regard as least to most pleasing. He 
would then extrapolate this gradient in the “more pleasing” di- 
rection to construct idealized heads that exaggerate those fea- 
tures regarded as most beautiful in actual people. Perhaps the 
Greeks had sculpted their deities in the same manner. 

With this background, we can grasp Camper’s own interpreta- 
tion of the facial angle. Camper held that modern humans range 
from 70 degrees to somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees in this 
measure. He also made two other observations: first, that mon- 
keys and other “brutes” maintained lower angles in proportion 
to their rank in the scale of nature (monkeys lower than apes, 
dogs lower than monkeys, and birds lower than dogs); second, 
that higher angles characterize smaller faces tucked below a more 
bulging cranium — a sign of mental nobility on the ancient theme 
of more is better. 

Having established this range of improvement for living crea- 
tures, Camper extrapolated his facial angle in the favorable direc- 
tion toward higher values. Voild. He had found the secret. The 
beautiful skulls of antiquity had achieved their pleasing propor- 
tions by exaggerating the facial angle beyond values attained by 
real people. Camper could even define the distinctions that had 
eluded experts and made for such difficulty in attempts to copy 
and define. Romans, he found, preferred an angle of 95 degrees, 
but the ancient Greek sculptors all used 100 degrees as their 


ideal — and this difference explains both our ease in distinguish- 
ing Greek originals from Roman copies and our aesthetic prefer- 
ence for Greek statuary. (Proportion, he also argued, is always a 
balance between too little and too much. We cannot extrapolate 
the facial angle forever. At values of more than 100 degrees, a 
human skull begins to look displeasing and eventually mon- 
strous — as in individuals afflicted with hydrocephalus. The pecu- 
liar genius of the Greeks, Camper argued, lay in their precise 
understanding of the facial angle. The great Athenian sculptors 
could push its value right to the edge, where maximal beauty 
switches to deformity. The Romans had not been so brave, and 
they paid the aesthetic price.) 

Thus, Camper felt that he had broken the code of antiquity and 
offered a precise definition of beauty (at least for the human 
head): “What constitutes a beautiful face? I answer, a disposition 
of traits such that the facial line makes an angle of 100 degrees 
with the horizontal.’’ Camper had defined an abstraction, but he 
had worked by extrapolation from nature. He ended his treatise 
with pride in this achievement: “I have tried to establish on the 
foundation of Nature herself, the true character of Beauty in faces 
and heads.” 

This context explains why the later use of facial angles for rac- 
ist rankings represents such a departure from Camper’s convic- 
tions and concerns. To be sure, two aspects of Camper’s work 
could be invoked to support these later interpretations, particu- 
larly in quotes taken out of context. First, he did, and without any 
explicit justification, make aesthetic judgments about the relative 
beauty of races — never doubting that Nordic Europeans must top 
the scale objectively and never considering that other folks might 
advocate different standards. “A Lapplander,” he writes, “has 
always been regarded, and without exception throughout the 
world, as more ugly than a Persian or a Georgian.” (One wonders 
if anyone had ever sent a packet of questionnaires to the Scandi- 
navian tundra; Camper, in any case at least, does not confine his 
accusations of ugliness to non-Caucasians.) 

Second, Camper did provide an ordering of human races by 
facial angle — and in the usual direction of later racist rankings, 
with Africans at the bottom, Orientals in the middle, and Euro- 
peans on top. He also did not fail to note that this ordering 


placed Africans closest to apes and Europeans nearest to Greek 
gods. In discussing the observed range of facial angles (70 to 100 
degrees in statues and actual heads), Camper notes that “It [this 
range] constitutes the entire gradation from the head of the 
Negro to the sublime beauty of the Greek of Antiquity.” Ex- 
trapolating further, Camper writes: 

As the facial line moves back [for a small face tucked under 
bulging skull] I produce a head of Antiquity; as I bring it 
forward [for a larger, projecting face] I produce the head of 
a Negro. If I bring it still further forward, the head of a 
monkey results, more forward still, and I get a dog, and 
finally a woodcock; this, now, is the primary basis of my 

(Our deprecations never cease. The French word for woodcock — 
becasse — also refers to a stupid woman in modern French slang.) 

I will not defend Camper’s view of human variation any more 
than 1 would pillory Lincoln for racism or Darwin for sexism 
(though both are guilty by modern standards). Camper lived in a 
different world, and we cannot single him out for judgment when 
he idly repeats the commonplaces of his age (nor, in general, may 
we evaluate the past by the present, if we hope to understand our 

Camper’s comments on racial rankings are fleeting and stated 
en passant. He makes no major point of African distinctions except 
to suggest that artists might now render the black Magus cor- 
rectly in painting the Epiphany. He does not harp upon differ- 
ences among human groups and entirely avoids the favorite 
theme of all later writings in craniometric racism — finer scale dis- 
tinctions between “inferior” and “superior” Europeans. His text 
contains not a whiff or hint of any suggestion that low facial an- 
gles imply anything about moral worth or intellect. He charges 
Africans with nothing but maximal departure from ideal beauty. 
Moreover, and most important, Camper’s clearly stated views on 
the nature of human variability preclude, necessarily and a priori, 
any equation of difference with innate inferiority. This is the key 
point that later commentators have missed because we have lost 
Camper’s world view and cannot interpret his text without recov- 
ering the larger structure of his ideas. 


We now live in a Darwinian world of variation, shadings, and 
continuity. For us, variation among human groups is fundamen- 
tal, both as an intrinsic property of nature and as a potential 
substratum for more substantial change. We see no difference in 
principle between variation within a species and established dif- 
ferences between species — for one can become the other via nat- 
ural selection. Given this potential continuity, both kinds of 
variation may record an underlying and basically similar genetic 
inheritance. To us, therefore, linear rankings (like Camper’s for 
the facial angle) quite properly smack of racism. 

But Camper dwelt in the pre-Darwinian world of typology. 
Species were fixed and created entities. Differences among spe- 
cies recorded their fundamental natures. But variation within a 
species could only be viewed as a series of reversible “accidents” 
(departures from a species’ essence) imposed by a variety of fac- 
tors, including climate, food, habits, or direct manipulation. If all 
humans represented but a single species, then our variation 
could only be superficial and accidental in this Platonic sense. 
Physical differences could not be tokens of innate inferiority. (By 
“accidental,” Camper and his contemporaries did not mean ca- 
pricious or devoid of immediate import in heredity. They knew 
that black parents had black children. Rather, they argued that 
these traits, impressed into heredity by climate or food, had no 
fixed status and could be easily modified by new conditions of 
life. T hey were often wrong, of course, but that’s not the point.) 

Therefore, to understand Camper’s views about human varia- 
bility, we must first learn whether he regarded all humans as 
members of one species or as products of several separate crea- 
tions (a popular position known at the time as polygeny). Camper 
recognized these terms of the argument and came down strongly 
and incisively for human unity as a single species (monogeny). In 
designating races by the technical term “variety,” Camper used 
the jargon of his day to underscore his conviction that our differ- 
ences are accidental and imposed departures from an essence 
shared by all; our races are not separated by differences fixed in 
heredity. “Blacks, mulattos, and whites are not diverse species of 
men, but only varieties of the human species. Our skin is con- 
stituted exactly like that of the colored nations; we are therefore 
only less black than they.” We cannot even know, Camper adds, 
whether Adam and Eve were created white or black since transi- 


tions between superficial varieties can occur so easily (an attack 
on those who viewed blacks as degenerate and Adam and Eve as 
necessarily created in Caucasian perfection): 

Whether Adam and Eve were created white or black is an 
entirely indifferent issue without consequences, since the 
passage from white to black, considerable though it be, op- 
erates as easily as that from black to white. 

Misinterpretation may be more common than accuracy, but a 
misreading precisely opposite to an author’s true intent may still 
excite our interest for its sheer perversity. When, in order to 
grasp this inversion, we must stretch our minds and learn to un- 
derstand some fossil systems of thinking, then we may convert a 
simple correction to a generality worthy of note. Poor Petrus 
Camper. He became the semiofficial grandpappy of the quantita- 
tive approach to scientific racism, yet his own concept of human 
variability precluded judgments about innate worth a priori. He 
developed a measure later used to make invidious distinctions 
among actual groups of people, but he pressed his own invention 
to the service of abstract beauty. He became a villain of science 
when he tried to establish criteria for art. Camper got a bad post- 
humous shake on earth; 1 only hope that he met the right deity on 
high (facial angle of 100 degrees, naturally), the God of Isaiah, 
who also equated beauty with number and proportion — he “who 
hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted 
out heaven with the span.” 


Literary Bias on the 
Slippery Slope 

every profession has its version: Some speak of 
“Sod’s law”; others of “Murphy’s law.” The formulations vary, 
but all make the same point — if anything bad can happen, it will. 
Such universality of attribution can only arise for one reason — 
the principle is true (even though we know that it isn't). 

The heldworker’s version is simply stated: You always find the 
most interesting specimens at the very last moment, just when 
you absolutely must leave. The effect of this phenomenon can 
easily be quantified. It operates weakly for localities near home 
and easily revisited and ever more strongly for distant and exotic 
regions requiring great effort and expense for future expedi- 
tions. Everyone has experienced this law of nature. I once spent 
two weeks on Great Abaco, visiting every nook and cranny of the 
island and assiduously proving that two supposed species of Cer- 
ion (my favorite land snail) really belonged to one variable group. 
On the last morning, as the plane began to load, we drove to the 
only unexamined place, an isolated corner of the island with the 
improbable name Hole-in-the-Wall. There we found hundreds of 
large white snails, members of the second species. 

Each profession treasures a classic, or canonical, version of the 
basic story. The paleontological “standard,” known to all my col- 
leagues as a favorite campfire tale and anecdote for introductory 
classes, achieves its top billing by joining the most famous geolo- 
gist of his era with the most important fossils of any time. The 
story, I have just discovered, is also entirely false (more than a bit 
embarrassing since I cited the usual version to begin an earlier 
essay in this series). 



Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927) was both the world’s 
leading expert on Cambrian rocks and fossils (the crucial time for 
the initial flowering of multicellular life) and the most powerful 
scientific administrator in America. Walcott, who knew every 
president from Teddy Roosevelt to Calvin Coolidge, and who 
persuaded Andrew Carnegie to establish the Carnegie Institute 
of Washington, had little formal education and began his career 
as a fieldworker for the United States Geological Survey. He rose 
to chief, and resigned in 1907 to become secretary (their name 
for boss) of the Smithsonian Institution. Walcott had his finger, 
more accurately his fist, in every important scientific pot in Wash- 

Walcott loved the Canadian Rockies and, continuing well into 
his seventies, spent nearly every summer in tents and on horse- 
back, collecting fossils and indulging his favorite hobby of pano- 
ramic photography. In 1909, Walcott made his greatest discovery 
in Middle Cambrian rocks exposed on the western flank of the 
ridge connecting Mount Field and Mount Wapta in eastern Brit- 
ish Columbia. 

The fossil record is, almost exclusively, a tale told by the hard 
parts of organisms. Soft anatomy quickly disaggregates and 
decays, leaving bones and shells behind. For two basic reasons, 
we cannot gain an adequate appreciation for the full range of 
ancient life from these usual remains. First, most organisms con- 
tain no hard parts at all, and we miss them entirely. Second, hard 
parts, especially superficial coverings, often tell us very little 
about the animal within or underneath. What could you learn 
about the anatomy of a snail from the shell alone? 

Paleontologists therefore treasure the exceedingly rare soft- 
bodied faunas occasionally preserved when a series of unusual 
circumstances coincide — rapid burial, oxygen-free environments 
devoid of bacteria or scavengers, and little subsequent distur- 
bance of sediments. 

Walcott’s 1909 discovery — called the Burgess Shale — sur- 
passes all others in significance because he found an exquisite 
fauna of soft-bodied organisms from the most crucial of all times. 
About 570 million years ago, virtually all modern phyla of ani- 
mals made their first appearance in an episode called “the Cam- 
brian explosion” to honor its geological rapidity. The Burgess 


Shale dates from a time just afterward and offers our only insight 
into the true range of diversity generated by this most prolific of 
all evolutionary events. 

Walcott, committed to a conventional view of slow and steady 
progress in increasing complexity and diversity, completely mis- 
interpreted the Burgess animals. He shoehorned them all into 
modern groups, interpreting the entire fauna as a set of simpler 
precursors for later forms. A comprehensive restudy during the 
past twenty years has inverted Walcott’s view and taught us the 
most surprising thing we know about the history of life: The fos- 
sils from this one small quarry in British Columbia exceed, in 
anatomical diversity, all modern organisms in the world’s oceans 
today. Some fifteen to twenty Burgess creatures cannot be placed 
into any modern phylum and represent unique forms of life, 
failed experiments in metazoan design. Within known groups, 
the Burgess range far exceeds what prevails today. Taxonomists 
have described almost a million living species of arthropods, but 
all can be placed into three great groups — insects and their rela- 
tives, spiders and their kin, and crustaceans. In Walcott’s single 
Canadian quarry, vastly fewer species include about twenty more 
basic anatomical designs! The history of life is a tale of decima- 
tion and later stabilization of few surviving anatomies, not a story 
of steady expansion and progress. 

But this is another story for another time (see my book Wonder- 
ful Life, 1989). I provide this epitome only to emphasize the con- 
text for paleontology’s classic instance of Sod’s law. These are no 
ordinary fossils, and their discoverer was no ordinary man. 

I can provide no better narration for the usual version than the 
basic source itself — the obituary notice for Walcott published by 
his longtime friend and former research assistant Charles Schu- 
chert, professor of paleontology at Yale. (Schuchert was, by then, 
the most powerful paleontologist in America, and Yale became 
the leading center of training for academic paleontology. The 
same story is told far and wide in basically similar versions, but I 
suspect that Schuchert was the primary source for canonization 
and spread. I first learned the tale from my thesis adviser, Nor- 
man D. Newell. He heard it from his adviser, Carl Dunbar, also at 
Yale, who got it directly from Schuchert.) Schuchert wrote in 


One of the most striking of Walcott’s faunal discoveries 
came at the end of the field season of 1909, when Mrs. Wal- 
cott’s horse slid in going down the trail and turned up a slab 
that at once attracted her husband’s attention. Here was a 
great treasure — wholly strange Crustacea of Middle Cam- 
brian time — but where in the mountain was the mother rock 
from which the slab had come? Snow was even then falling, 
and the solving of the riddle had to be left to another sea- 
son, but next year the Walcotts were back again on Mount 
Wapta, and eventually the slab was traced to a layer of 
shale — later called the Burgess shale — 3,000 feet above the 
town of Field, British Columbia, and 8,000 feet above 
the sea. 

Stories are subject to a kind of natural selection. As they propa- 
gate in the retelling and mutate by embellishment, most eventu- 
ally fall by the wayside to extinction from public consciousness. 
The few survivors hang tough because they speak to deeper 
themes that stir our souls or tickle our funnybones. The Burgess 
legend is a particularly good story because it moves from tension 
to resolution, and enfolds within its basically simple structure two 
of the greatest themes in conventional narration — serendipity 
and industry leading to its just reward. We would never have 
known about the Burgess if Mrs. Walcott’s horse hadn’t slipped 
going downslope on the very last day of the field season (as night 
descended and snow fell, to provide a dramatic backdrop of last- 
minute chanciness). So Walcott bides his time for a year in con- 
siderable anxiety. But he is a good geologist and knows how to 
find his quarry (literally in this case). He returns the next summer 
and finally locates the Burgess Shale by hard work and geological 
skill. He starts with the dislodged block and traces it patiently 
upslope until he finds the mother lode. Schuchert doesn’t men- 
tion a time, but most versions state that Walcott spent a week or 
more trying to locate the source. Walcott’s son Sidney, reminis- 
cing sixty years later, wrote in 1971: “We worked our way up, 
trying to find the bed of rock from which our original find had 
been dislodged. A week later and some 750 feet higher we de- 
cided that we had found the site.” 

I can imagine two basic reasons for the survival and propaga- 
tion of this canonical story. First, it is simply too good a tale to 


pass into oblivion. When both good luck and honest labor com- 
bine to produce victory, we all feel grateful to discover that for- 
tune occasionally smiles, and uplifted to learn that effort brings 
reward. Second, the story might be true. And if dramatic and 
factual value actually coincide, then we have a real winner. 

I had always grasped the drama and never doubted the veracity 
(the story is plausible, after all). But in 1988, while spending 
several days in the Walcott archives at the Smithsonian Institu- 
tion, I discovered that all key points of the story are false. I found 
that some of my colleagues had also tracked down the smoking 
gun before me, for the relevant pages of Walcott’s diary had been 
earmarked and photographed before. 

Walcott, the great conservative administrator, left a precious 
gift to future historians by his assiduous recordkeeping. He never 
missed a day of writing in his diary. Even at the very worst mo- 
ment of his life, July 11, 1911, he made the following, crisply 
factual entry about his wife: “Helena killed at Bridgeport Conn, 
by train being smashed up at 2:30 a.m. Did not hear of it until 3 
p.m. Left for Bridgeport 5:35 p.m.” (Walcott was meticulous, but 
please do not think him callous. Overcome with grief the next 
day, he wrote on July 12: “My love — my wife — my comrade for 24 
years. I thank God I had her for that time. Her untimely fate I 
cannot now understand.”) 

Walcott’s diary for the close of the 1909 held season neatly 
dismisses part one of the canonical tale. Walcott found the first 
soft-bodied fossils on Burgess ridge either on August 30 or 31. 
His entry for August 30 reads: 

Out collecting on the Stephen formation [the unit that in- 
cludes what Walcott later called the Burgess Shale] all day. 
Found many interesting fossils on the west slope of the 
ridge between Mounts Field and Wapta [the right locality 
for the Burgess Shale], Helena, Helen, Arthur, and Stuart 
[his wife, daughter, assistant, and son] came up with re- 
mainder of outfit at 4 p.m. 

On the next day, they had clearly discovered a rich assemblage 
of soft-bodied fossils. Walcott’s quick sketches (see figure) are so 
clear that I can identify the three genera he depicts — Marrella 
(upper left), the most common Burgess fossil and one of the 


The smoking gun for exploding a Burgess Shale legend. Walcott’s diary 
for the end of August and the beginning of September, 1909. He col- 
lected for an entire week in good weather. Smithsonian institution. 

unique arthropods beyond the range of modern designs; Waptia, 
a bivalved arthropod (upper right); and the peculiar trilobite 
Naraoia (lower left). Walcott wrote: “Out with Helena and Stuart 
collecting fossils from the Stephen formation. We found a re- 
markable group of Phyllopod crustaceans. Took a large number 
of fine specimens to camp.” 

What about the horse slipping and the snow falling? If this 
incident occurred at all, we must mark the date as August 30, 
when Walcott’s family came up the slope to meet him in the late 
afternoon. They might have turned up the slab as they descended 
for the night, returning the next morning to find the specimens 
that Walcott drew on August 31. This reconstruction gains some 
support from a letter that Walcott wrote to Marr (for whom he 
later named the “lace crab” Marrella) in October 1909: 


When we were collecting from the Middle Cambrian, a stray 
slab of shale brought down by a snow slide showed a fine 
Phyllopod crustacean on a broken edge. Mrs. W. and I 
worked on that slab from 8 in the morning until 6 in the 
evening and took back with us the finest collection of Phyl- 
lopod crustaceans that I have ever seen. 

(Phyllopod, or “leaf-footed,” is an old name for marine arthro- 
pods with rows of lacy gills, often used for swimming, on one 
branch of their legs.) 

Transformation can be subtle. A snow slide becomes a snow- 
storm, and the night before a happy day in the held becomes a 
forced and hurried end to an entire season. But far more impor- 
tant, Walcott’s held season did not finish with the discoveries of 
August 30 and 31. The party remained on Burgess ridge until 
September 7! Walcott was thrilled by his discovery and collected 
with avidity every day thereafter. The diaries breathe not a single 
word about snow, and Walcott assiduously reported the weather 
in every entry. His happy week brought nothing but praise for 
Mother Nature. On September 1 he wrote: “Beautiful warm 

Finally, I strongly suspect that Walcott located the source for 
his stray block during the last week of his 1909 held season — at 
least the basic area of outcrop, if not the very richest layers. On 
September 1, the day after he drew the three arthropods, Walcott 
wrote: “We continued collecting. Found a hne group of sponges 
on slope (in situ) [meaning undisturbed and in their original posi- 
tion].” Sponges, containing some hard parts, extend beyond the 
richest layers of soft-bodied preservation, but the best specimens 
come from the strata of the Burgess mother lode. On each subse- 
quent day, Walcott found abundant soft-bodied specimens, and 
his descriptions do not read like the work of a man encountering 
a lucky stray block here and there. On September 2, he discovers 
that the supposed shell of an ostracode really houses the body of 
a Phyllopod: “Working high up on the slope while Helena col- 
lected near the trail. Found that the large so-called Leperditia- 
like test is the shield of a Phyllopod.” The Burgess quarry is 
“high up on the slope,” while stray blocks would slide down 
toward the trail. 

On September 3, Walcott was even more successful: “Found a 


fine lot of Phyllopod crustaceans and brought in several slabs of 
rock to break up at camp.” In any event, he continued to collect, 
and put in a full day for his last hurrah on September 7: “With 
Stuart and Mr. Rutter went up on fossil beds. Out from 7 a.m. to 
6:30 p.m. Our last day in camp for 1909.” 

If I am right about his discovery of the main beds in 1909, then 
the second part of the canonical tale — the week-long patient trac- 
ing of errant block to source in 1910 — should be equally false. 
Walcott's diary for 1910 supports my interpretation. Onjuly 10, 
champing at the bit, he hiked up to the Burgess Pass camp- 
ground, but found the area too deep in snow for any excavations. 
Finally, onjuly 29, Walcott reports that his party set up “at Bur- 
gess Pass campground of 1909.” Onjuly 30, they climbed neigh- 
boring Mount Field and collected fossils. Walcott indicates that 
they made their first attempt to locate the Burgess beds on Au- 
gust 1 : 

All out collecting the Burgess formation until 4 p.m. when a 
cold wind and rain drove us into camp. Measured section of 
the Burgess formation — 420 feet thick. Sidney with me. 
Stuart with his mother and Helen puttering about camp. 

(“Measuring a section” is geological jargon for tracing the verti- 
cal sequence of strata and noting the rock types and fossils. If you 
wished to find the source of an errant block dislodged and tum- 
bled below, you would measure the section above, trying to 
match your block to its most likely layer.) 

I think that Charles and Sidney Walcott located the Burgess 
beds on this very first day, because Walcott writes for his next 
entry of August 2: “Out collecting with Helena, Stuart, and Sid- 
ney. We found a fine lot ol ‘lace crabs’ and various odds and ends 
of things.” “Lace crab” was Walcott’s informal field term for 
Marrella, and Marrella is the marker of the mother lode — the most 
common animal in the Burgess Shale. If we wish to give the 
canonical tale all benefit of doubt, and argue that these lace crabs 
of August 2 came from dislodged blocks, we still cannot grant a 
week of strenuous effort for locating the mother lode, for Walcott 
writes just two days later on August 4: “Helena worked out a lot 
of Phyllopod crustaceans from ‘Lace Crab layer.’ ” From then on, 


until the end of summer, they quarried the lace crab layer, now 
known as the Burgess Shale. 

The canonical tale is more romantic and inspiring, but the 
plain factuality of the diary makes more sense. I have been to the 
Burgess ridge. The trail lies just a few hundred feet below the 
main Burgess beds. The slope is simple and steep, with strata well 
exposed. Tracing an errant block to its source should not have 
presented a major problem — for Walcott was more than a good 
geologist; he was a great geologist. He should have located the 
main beds right away, in 1909, since he had a week to work after 
first discovering soft-bodied fossils. He was not able to quarry in 
1909 — the only constraint imposed by limits of time. But he 
found many fine fossils and probably the main beds themselves. 
He knew just where to go in 1910 and set up shop in the right 
place as soon as the snows melted. 

Memory is a fascinating trickster. Words and images have enor- 
mous power and can easily displace actual experience over the 
years. As an intriguing testimony to the power of legend, con- 
sider the late memories of Walcott’s son Sidney. In 1971, more 
than sixty years after the events, Sidney wrote a short article for 
Smithsonian, “How I Found My Own Fossil.” (The largest Burgess 
arthropod bears the name Sidneyia inexpectans in honor of his dis- 
covery.) Sidney must have heard the canonical tale over and over 
again across the many years (think of him enduring mounds of 
rubber chicken and endless repetitions of the anecdote in after- 
dinner speeches) — and his actual experience faded as the con- 
ventional myth took root. 

Sidney’s version includes the two main ingredients — serendip- 
ity in the chance discovery of a dislodged slab blocking the path- 
way of packhorses, and assiduous effort in the patient, week-long 
tracing of block to source. But Sidney places the packhorse inci- 
dent on his watch in 1910, not on his mother’s the previous year: 

Father suddenly told me to halt the packtrain. I signaled, 
and the horses started to browse at the side of the trail. 
Often on our summer camping trips I had seen Father 
throw stones and logs out of the trail to make the going a bit 
easier for the horses. So it was no surprise to see him upend 
a slab, worn white by the shoes of horses slipping on it for 


years. He hit it a few times along its edge with his geological 
hammer and it split open. “Look Sidney,” he called. I saw 
several extraordinary fossils on the rock surface. “Let’s look 
further tomorrow. . . . We won’t go to Field tonight.” To 
our family, back in 1910, it seemed a miracle that Father’s 
simple act of thoughtfulness for the comfort and safety of a 
few packhorses led to this discovery. 

A lovely story, but absolutely nothing about it can be true. 
Sidney knew the canonical yarn about slabs and packhorses, but 
moved the tale a year forward. We cannot believe that slabs could 
have blocked paths for two years running, with fossils always on 
their upturned edges, especially since an unanticipated discovery 
in 1909 precludes a similar surprise the next year. Moreover, 
Sidney could not have remembered an actual incident of the first 
season, and then mixed up the years, because he wasn’t there in 

Sidney’s second ingredient, his tale of a week-long search for 
the mother lode (cited previously in this essay), is equally false 
from the evidence of Walcott’s diary, and similarly read into 
memory from the repetition of legend, not the recall of actual 

Why am I bothering with all this detail? To be sure, truth has a 
certain moral edge over falsehood, but few people care much 
about corrections to stories they never heard about people they 
never knew. If the only lesson in this little reversal of Burgess 
orthodoxy exhorts us to be careful lest a tendency to embellish or 
romanticize stifle the weakly dickering flame of truth, then this 
essay is as banal as the sentence I just wrote. But I would defend 
my effort on two grounds. First, the Burgess animals happen to 
be the world’s most important fossils, and the purely factual is- 
sues surrounding their discovery therefore demand more than 
the usual care and attention to accuracy. We might not challenge 
a family legend about Unclejoe in the interests of domestic peace 
and benevolence, but we really would like to know how Jesus 
lived and died because different views have had such palpable 
effects upon billions of lives. Second, I believe that our tenden- 
cies to construct legends raise an issue far more interesting than 
watchdog warnings about eternal verity. 

1 would begin by asking why almost every canonical tale is false 


in the same way — a less interesting reality converted to a simple 
story with a message. Do we need these stories so badly because 
life isn’t heroic or thrilling most of the time? Sean O’Casey said 
that the stage must be larger than life, and few poets or play- 
wrights can succeed by fidelity to the commonplace. It takes the 
artistry ofjames Joyce to make a masterpiece from one day in the 
life of an ordinary man. Most of our existence is eating, sleeping, 
walking, and breathing. Even the life of a soldier, if expressed in 
real time, would be almost uninterrupted tedium — for an old 
motto identifies this profession as long periods of boredom inter- 
spersed with short moments of terror. 

Astute scientists understand that political and cultural bias 
must impact their ideas, and they strive to recognize these inevi- 
table influences. But we usually fail to acknowledge another 
source of error that might be called literary bias. So much of 
science proceeds by telling stories — and we are especially vulner- 
able to constraints of this medium because we so rarely recognize 
what we are doing. We think that we are reading nature by apply- 
ing rules of logic and laws of matter to our observations. But we 
are often telling stories — in the good sense, but stories nonethe- 
less. Consider the traditional scenarios of human evolution — 
tales of the hunt, of campfires, dark caves, rituals, and 
toolmaking, coming of age, struggle and death. How much is 
based on bones and artifacts and how much on the norms of 

If these reconstructions are stories, then they are bound by the 
rules of canonical legendmaking. And if we construct our stories 
to be unlike life — the main point of this essay — then our literary 
propensities are probably derailing our hope to understand the 
quotidian reality of our evolution. Stories only go in certain 
ways — and these paths do not conform to patterns of actual life. 

This constraint does not apply only to something so clearly 
ripe for narration and close to home as “the rise of man from the 
apes” (to choose a storylike description that enfolds biases of 
gender and progress into its conventionality). Even the most dis- 
tant and abstract subjects, like the formation of the universe or 
the principles of evolution, fall within the bounds of necessary 
narrative. Our images of evolution are caught in the web of tale 
telling. They involve progress, pageant; above all, ceaseless mo- 
tion somewhere. Even revisionist stories that question ideas of 


gradual progress — the sort that I have been spinning for years in 
these essays — are tales of another kind about good fortune, un- 
predictability, and contingency (the kingdom lost for want of a 
horseshoe nail). But focus on almost any evolutionary moment, 
and nothing much is happening. Evolution, like soldiering and 
life itself, is daily repetition almost all the time. Evolutionary days 
may be generations, but as the Preacher said, one passeth away 
and another cometh, but the earth abideth forever. The fullness 
of time, of course, does provide a sufficient range for picking out 
rare moments of activity and linking them together into a story. 
But we must understand that nothing happens most of the time — 
and we don’t because our stories don’t admit this theme — if we 
hope to grasp the dynamics of evolutionary change. (This sen- 
tence may sound contradictory, but it isn’t. To know the reasons 
for infrequent change, one must understand the ordinary rules of 
stability.) The Burgess Shale teaches us that, for the history of 
basic anatomical designs, almost everything happened in the ge- 
ological moment just before, and almost nothing in more than 
500 million years since. 

Included in this “almost nothing,” as a kind of geological after- 
thought of the last few million years, is the first development of 
self-conscious intelligence on this planet — an odd and unpredict- 
able invention of a little twig on the mammalian evolutionary 
bush. Any definition of this uniqueness, embedded as it is in our 
possession of language, must involve our ability to frame the 
world as stories and to transmit these tales to others. If our pro- 
pensity to grasp nature as story has distorted our perceptions, I 
shall accept this limit of mentality upon knowledge, for we re- 
ceive in trade both thejoys of literature and the core of our being. 


Down Under 

Glow, Big Glowworm 

Small misunderstandings are often a prod to in- 
sight or victory. For such a minor error with major consequences, 
Laurel and Hardy got into terminal trouble with the toymaster in 
March of the Wooden Soldiers — they got fired for building 100 sol- 
diers six feet high, when Santa had ordered 600 at one foot. But 
the six-footers later saved Toyland from the invasion of Barnaby 
and his bogeymen. 

In insects that undergo a complete metamorphosis, cells that 
will form adult tissues are already present in the bodies of larvae 
as isolated patches called imaginal disks. For many years, I re- 
garded this term as one of the oddest in all biology — for I always 
read “imaginal” as “imaginary” and thought I was being told that 
this substrate of maturity really didn’t exist at all. 

When I learned the true origin of this term, I realized that I had 
not only misunderstood but had made an absolutely backward 
interpretation. 1 also discovered that my resolution had taught 
me something interesting — about ways of looking at the world, 
not about any facts of nature per se — and I therefore judged my 
former error as fruitful. 

Linnaeus himself, father of taxonomy, named the stages of in- 
sect development. He designated the feeding stage that hatched 
from the egg as a larva (the caterpillar of a moth or the maggot of 
a housefly), and he called the sexually mature adult an imago, 
hence imaginal disk for precursors of adult tissues within the 

The etymologies of these terms provided my insight — a larva is 
a mask; an imago, the image or essential form of a species. Lin- 



naeus, in other words, viewed the development of insects as 
progress toward fulfillment. The first stage is only preparatory; it 
hides the true and complete representation of a species. The final 
form embodies the essence of louseness, thripsness, or flyness. 
Imaginal disks, by both etymology and concept, are bits of higher 
reality lurking within initial imperfection — no sign of “let’s pre- 
tend” here. 

Most impediments to scientific understanding are conceptual 
locks, not factual lacks. Most difficult to dislodge are those biases 
that escape our scrutiny because they seem so obviously, even 
ineluctably, just. We know ourselves best and tend to view other 
creatures as mirrors of our own constitution and social arrange- 
ments. (Aristotle, and nearly two millennia of successors, desig- 
nated the large bee that leads the swarm as a king.) 

Few aspects of human existence are more basic than our life 
cycle of growth and development. For all the glories of child- 
hood. we in the West have generally viewed our youngsters as 
undeveloped and imperfect adults — smaller, weaker, and more 
ignorant. Adulthood is a termination; childhood, an upward 
path. How natural, then, that we should also interpret the life 
cycles of other organisms as a linear path from imperfect poten- 
tial to final realization — from the small, ill-formed creature that 
first develops from an egg to the large and complex fruition that 
produces the egg of the next generation. 

How obvious, in particular, that insect larvae are imperfect 
juveniles and imagoes realized adults. Linnaeus’s etymology em- 
bodies this traditional interpretation imposed from human life 
upon the development of insects. When we combine this dubious 
comparison of human and insect life cycles with our more general 
preference for viewing developmental sequences as ladders of 
progress (a prejudice that has hampered our understanding of 
evolution even more than our resolution of embryology), insect 
larvae seem doomed to easy dismissal by an aggregation of 
biases — etymological, conceptual, and parochial. 

If we turn to two leading works of popular science, published 
five years after Darwin’s Origin of Species — one on life cycles in 
general, the other on insects — we obtain a good sense of these 
traditional biases. A. de Quatrefages, great French student of 
that economic leader among insect larvae, the silkworm, wrote in 


his Metamorphosis of Man and the Lower Animals (1864) that “larvae 
. . . are always incomplete beings; they are true first sketches, 
which are rendered more and more perfect at each developmen- 
tal phase.” 

An Introduction to Entomology, by William Kirby, rector of Bar- 
ham, and William Spence, wins first prize among British works of 
popular science for celebrity, for longevity (its first edition ap- 
peared in 1815), and for prose in the most preciously purple 
tradition of “nature writing,” as satirized hy example in James 
Joyce’s Ulysses: “Note the meanderings of some purling rill as it 
babbles on its way, fanned by the gentlest zephyrs tho’ quarrel- 
ling with the stony obstacles, to the tumbling waters of Neptune’s 
blue domain. . . .” To which, Mr. Dedalus replies: “Agonizing 
Christ, wouldn’t it give you a heartburn on your arse.” And for 
which (among other things) Ulysses was once banned from the 
United States as obscene — although I would sooner exclude that 
purling rill than a heartburn on any part of the anatomy. 

In their first post-Darwinian edition (1863), Kirby and Spence 
make no bones about their preference for well-formed imagoes 
and their distaste for grubby larvae (a redundancy for emphasis 
of my point — grubs are larvae, and we owe this adjective to the 
same prejudice); 

That active little fly, now an unbidden guest at your table, 
whose delicate palate selects your choicest viands, while ex- 
tending his proboscis to the margin of a drop of wine, and 
then gaily flying to take a more solid repast from a pear or 
peach; now gamboling with his comrades in the air, now 
gracefully currying his furled wings with his taper feet, was 
but the other day a disgusting grub, without wings, without 
legs, without eyes, wallowing, well pleased, in the midst of a 
mass of excrement. 

The adult, they write, is called an imago “because, having laid 
aside its mask [larva], and cast off its swaddling hands [the pupal 
cocoon, or chrysalis], being no longer disguised | larva] or con- 
fined [pupa], or in any other respect imperfect, it is now become a 
true representative or image of its species.” 

The burden of metaphor becomes immeasurably heavier for 


larvae when Kirby and Spence then drag out that oldest of all 
insect analogies from an age of more pervasive Christianity — the 
life cycle of a butterfly to the passage of a soul from first life in the 
imperfect prison of a human body (larval caterpillar), to death 
and entombment (pupal chrysalis), to the winged freedom of res- 
urrection (imago, or butterfly). This simile dates to the great 
Dutch biologist Jan Swammerdam, child of Cartesian rationalism 
but also, at heart, a religious mystic, who first discovered the 
rudimentary wings of butterflies, enfurled in late stages of larval 
caterpillars. Swammerdam wrote near the end of the seventeenth 
century: “This process is formed in so remarkable a manner in 
butterflies, that we see therein the resurrection painted before 
our eyes, and exemplified so as to be examined by our hands.” 
Kirby and Spence then elaborated just a bit: 

To see a caterpillar crawling upon the earth sustained by 
the most ordinary kinds of food, which when ... its ap- 
pointed work being finished, passes into an intermediate 
state of seeming death, when it is wound up in a kind of 
shroud and encased in a coffin, and is most commonly bur- 
ied under the earth . . . then, when called by the warmth of 
the solar beam, they burst from their sepulchres, cast off 
their raiments . . . come forth as a bride out of her cham- 
ber — to survey them, I say, arrayed in their nuptial glory, 
prepared to enjoy a new and more exalted condition of life, 
in which all their powers are developed, and they are ar- 
rived at the perfection of their nature . . . who that witnesses 
this interesting scene can help seeing in it a lively represen- 
tation of man in his threefold state of existence. . . .The 
butterfly, the representative of the soul, is prepared in the 
larva for its future state of glory; ... it will come to its state 
of repose in the pupa, which is its Hades; and at length, 
when it assumes the imago, break forth with new powers 
and beauty to its final glory and the reign of love. 

But must we follow this tradition and view larvae as harbingers 
of better things? Must all life cycles be conceptualized as paths of 
progress leading to an adult form? Human adults control the 
world’s media — and the restriction of this power to one stage of 
our life cycle imposes a myopic view. I would be happy to counter 


this prejudice (as many have) by emphasizing the creativity and 
specialness of human childhood, but this essay speaks for insects. 

I will admit that our standard prejudice applies, in one sense, 
to creatures like ourselves. Our bodies do grow and transform in 
continuity. A human adult is an enlarged version of its own child- 
hood; we grown-ups retain the same organs, reshaped a bit and 
often increased a great deal. (Many insects with simple life cycles, 
or so-called incomplete metamorphoses, also grow in continuity. 
This essay treats those insects that cycle through the classic 
stages of complete metamorphosis: egg, larva, pupa, and imago.) 

But how can we apply this bias of the upward path to complex 
life cycles of other creatures? In what sense is the polyp of a 
cnidarian (the phylum of corals and their allies) more — or less — 
complete than the medusa that buds from its body? One stage 
feeds and grows; the other mates and lays eggs. They perform 
different and equally necessary functions. What else can one say? 
Insect larvae and imagoes perform the same division — larvae eat 
and imagoes reproduce. Moreover, larvae do not grow into 
imagoes by increase and complication of parts. Instead, larval 
tissues are sloughed off and destroyed during the pupal stage, 
while the imago largely develops from small aggregations of 
cells — the imaginal disks of this essay’s beginning — that resided, 
but did not differentiate, within the larva. Degenerating larval 
tissues are often used as a culture medium for growth of the 
imago within the pupa. Larva and imago are different and dis- 
crete, not before and shadowy versus later and complete. 

Even Kirby and Spence sensed this true distinction between 
objects equally well suited for feeding and reproduction, though 
they soon buried their insight in cascading metaphors about 
progress and resurrection: 

Were you ... to compare the internal conformation of the 
caterpillar with that of the butterfly, you would witness 
changes even more extraordinary. In the former you would 
find some thousands of muscles, which in the latter are re- 
placed by others of a form and structure entirely different. 
Nearly the whole body of the caterpillar is occupied by a 
capacious stomach. In the butterfly it has become converted 
into an almost imperceptible thread-like viscus; and the ab- 
domen is now filled by two large packets of eggs. 


If we break through the tyranny of our usual bias, to a different 
view of larvae and imagoes as separate and potentially equal de- 
vices for feeding and reproduction, many puzzles are immedi- 
ately resolved. Each stage adapts in its own way, and depending 
upon ecology and environment, one might be emphasized, the 
other degraded to insignificance in our limited eyes. The “de- 
graded” stage might be the imago as well as the larva — more 
likely, in fact, since feeding and growth can be rushed only so 
much, but mating, as poets proclaim, can be one enchanted eve- 
ning. Thus, I used to feel sorry for the mayfly and its legendary 
one day of existence, but such brevity only haunts the imago, and 
longer-lived larvae also count in the total cycle of life. And what 
about the seventeen-year “locust” (actually a cicada)? Larvae 
don’t lie around doing nothing during this dog’s age, waiting 
patiently for their few days of visible glory. They have an active 
life underground, including long stretches of dormancy to be 
sure, but also active growth through numerous molts. 

Thus, we find our best examples of an alternative and expan- 
sive view of life cycles among species that emphasize the size, 
length, and complexity of larval life at the apparent expense of 
imaginal domination — where, to borrow Butler’s famous line 
with only minor change in context, a hen really does seem to be 
the egg’s way of manufacturing another egg. I recently encoun- 
tered a fine case during a visit to New Zealand — made all the 
more dramatic because human perceptions focus entirely upon 
the larva and ignore the imago. 

After you leave the smoking and steaming, the boiling and 
puffing, the sulfurous stench of geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots 
around Rotorua, you arrive at the second best site on the stan- 
dard tourist itinerary of the North Island — the glowworm grotto 
of Waitomo Cave. Here, in utter silence, you glide by boat into a 
spectacular underground planetarium, an amphitheater lit with 
thousands of green dots — each the illuminated rear end of a fly 
larva (not a worm at all). (I was dazzled by the effect because I 
found it so unlike the heavens. Stars are arrayed in the sky at 
random with respect to the earth’s position. Hence, we view them 
as clumped into constellations. This may sound paradoxical, but 
my statement reflects a proper and unappreciated aspect of ran- 
dom distributions. Evenly spaced dots are well ordered for cause. 
Random arrays always include some clumping, just as we will flip 


several heads in a row quite often so long as we can make enough 
tosses — and our sky is not wanting for stars. The glowworms, on 
the other hand, are spaced more evenly because larvae compete 
with, and even eat, each other — and each constructs an exclusive 
territory. The glowworm grotto is an ordered heaven.) 

These larval glowworms are profoundly modified members of 
the family Mycetophilidae, or fungus gnats. Imagoes of this spe- 
cies are unremarkable, but the larvae rank among the earth’s 
most curious creatures. Two larval traits (and nothing imaginal) 
inspired the name for this peculiar species — Arachnocampa 
lummosa, honoring both the light and the silken nest that both 
houses the glowworm and traps its prey (for Arachne the weaver, 
namesake of spiders, or arachnids, as well). The imagoes of 
Arachnocampa lummosa are small and short-lived mating machines. 
The much larger and longer-lived larvae have evolved three com- 
plex and coordinated adaptations — carnivory, light, and web- 
bing — that distinguish them from the simpler larval habits of 
ancestral fungus gnats: burrowing into mushrooms, munching all 
the way. 

In a total life cycle (egg to egg) often lasting eleven months, 
Arachnocampa luminosa spends eight to nine months as a larval 
glowworm. Larvae molt four times and grow from 3- to 5-milli- 
meter hatchlings to a final length of some 30 to 40 millimeters. 
(By contrast, imagoes are 12 to 16 millimeters in length, males 
slightly smaller than females, and live but one to four days, males 
usually longer than females.) 

Carnivory is the focus of larval existence, the coordinating 
theme behind a life-style so different from the normal course of 
larval herbivory in fungus gnats. Consider the three principal 

Luminescence: The light organ of A. luminosa forms at the rear 
end of the larva from enlarged tips of four excretory tubes. These 
tubes carry a waste product that glows in the presence of lucifer- 
ase, an enzyme also produced by the larva. This reaction requires 
a good supply of oxygen, and the four excretory tubes lie embed- 
ded in a dense network of respiratory tubules that both supply 
oxygen to fuel the reaction and then reflect and direct the light 
downward. This complex and specially evolved system functions 
to attract insects (mostly small midges) to the nest. Pupae and 
imagoes retain the ability to luminesce. The light of female pupae 


and adults attracts males, but the glow of adult males has no 
known function. 

The Nest and Feeding Threads: From glands in its mouth, the 
glowworm exudes silk and mucus to construct a marvel of or- 
ganic architecture. The young larva first builds the so-called 
nest — really more of a hollow tube or runway — some two to three 
times the length of its body. A network of fine silk threads sus- 
pends this nest from the cave’s ceiling. The larva drops a curtain 
of closely spaced feeding threads from its nest. These “fishing 
lines” may number up to seventy per nest and may extend almost 
a foot in length (or ten times the span of the larva itself). Each line 
is studded along its entire length with evenly spaced, sticky drop- 
lets that catch intruding insects; the entire structure resembles, in 
miniature, a delicate curtain of glass beads. Since the slightest 
current of air can cause these lines to tangle, caves, culverts, 
ditches, and calm spaces amidst vegetation provide the limited 
habitats (or A. luminosa in New Zealand. 

Camivory: Using its lighted rear end as a beacon, A. luminosa 
attracts prey to its feeding threads. T wo posterior papillae con- 
tain sense organs that detect vibrations of ensnared prey. The 
larva then crawls partway down the proper line, leaving half to 
two-thirds of its rear in the nest, and hauls up both line and meal 
at a rate of some 2 millimeters per second. 

The rest of the fife cycle pales by comparison with this com- 
plexity of larval anatomy and behavior. The pupal stage lasts a bit 
less than two weeks and already records a marked reduction in 
size ( 1 5 to 18 millimeters for females, 1 2 to 14 for males) . I have 
already noted the imago’s decrease in body size and duration of 
fife. Imaginal behavior also presents little in the way of diversity 
or complexity. Adult flies have no mouth and do not feed at all. 
We commit no great exaggeration by stating that they behave as 
unipurpose mating and egg-laying machines during their brief 
existence. Up to three males may congregate at a female pupa, 
awaiting her emergence. They jockey for positon and fight as the 
female fly begins to break through her encasement. As soon as 
the tip of her abdomen emerges, males (if present) begin to mate. 
Thus, females can be fertilized even before they break fully from 
the pupal case. Females may then live for less than a day (and no 
more than three), doing little more before they expire than find- 
ing an appropriate place for some 100 to 300 eggs, laid one at a 


time in clumps of 40 to 50. Males may live an additional day (up 
to four); with luck, they may find another female and do it again 
for posterity. 

As a final and grisly irony, emphasizing larval dominance over 
the life cycle of A. luminosa, a rapacious glowworm will eat any- 
thing that touches its feeding threads. The much smaller imagoes 
often fly into the lines and end up as just another meal for their 
own children.* 

Please do not draw from this essay the conclusion that larvae 

*To throw in a tidbit for readers interested in the history of evolutionary theory, 
this tightly coordinated complex of larval adaptations so intrigued Richard 
Goldschmidt that he once wrote an entire article to argue that light, carnivory, 
and nest building could not have arisen by gradual piecemeal, since each makes 
no sense without the others — and that all, therefore, must have appeared at once 
as a fortuitous consequence of a large mutational change, a “hopeful monster,” in 
his colorful terminology. 

This proposal (published in English in Revue Scientifique, 1948) inspired a stern 
reaction from orthodox Darwinians. Although I have great sympathy for Gold- 
schmidt’s iconoclasm, he was, I think, clearly wrong in this case. AsJ. F. Jackson 
pointed out (1974), Goldschmidt made an error in the taxonomic assignment of 
A. luminosa among the Mycetophilidae. He ranked this species in the subfamily 
Bolitophilinae. All larvae of this group burrow into soft mushrooms, and none 
shows even incipient development of any among the three linked features that 
mark the unique form and behavior of A. luminosa. Hence, Goldschmidt argued 
for all or nothing. 

But A. luminosa probably belongs in another subfamily, the Keroplatinae — and, 
unknown to Goldschmidt, several species within this group do display a series of 
plausible transitions. Leptomorphus catches and eats fungal spores trapped on a 
sheetlike nest slung below a mushroom. Some species of Macrocera and Keroplatus 
also build trap nets for fungal spores but will eat small arthropods that also 
become ensnared. Species of Orfelia, Apemon, and Platyura build webs of similar 
form but not associated with mushrooms — and they live exclusively on a diet of 
trapped insects. Finally, Orfelia aeropiscator (literally, air fisher) both builds a nest 
and hangs vertical feeding threads but does not possess a light. 

These various “intermediates" are, of course, not ancestral to A. luminosa. Each 
represents a well-adapted species in its own right, not a transitional stage to the 
threefold association of New Zealand glowworms. But this array does show that 
each step in a plausible sequence of structurally intermediate stages can work as a 
successful organism. This style of argument follows Darwin's famous resolution 
for a potential evolutionary origin for the extraordinary complexity of the verte- 
brate eye. Darwin identified a series of structural intermediates, from simple 
light-sensitive dots to cameralike lens systems — not actual ancestors (for these are 
lost among nonpreservable eyes in a fossil record of hard parts) but plausible 
sequences disproving the “commonsense” notion that nothing in between is pos- 
sible in principle. 


are really more important than imagoes, either in A. luminosa or in 
general. I have tried to show t Hat larvae must not be dismissed — 
as preparatory, undeveloped, or incomplete — by false analogy to 
a dubious (but socially favored) interpretation of human develop- 
ment. If any “higher reality” exists, we can only specify the life 
cycle itself. Larva and imago are but two stages of a totality — and 
you really can't have one without the other. Eggs need hens as 
much as hens need eggs. 

I do try to show that child-adult is the wrong metaphor for 
understanding larva-imago. I have proceeded by discussing a 
case where larvae attract all our attention — literally as a source of 
beauty; structurally in greater size, length of life, and complexity 
of anatomy and behavior; and evolutionarily as focus of a major 
transformation from a simpler and very different ancestral style — 
while imagoes have scarcely modified their inherited form and 
behavior at all. But our proper emphasis on the larva of A. 
luminosa does not mark any superiority. 

We need another metaphor to break the common interpreta- 
tion that degrades larvae to a penumbra of insignificance. (How 
many of you include maggot in your concept of fly? And how 
many have ever considered the mayfly’s longer larval life?) The 
facts of nature are what they are, but we can only view them 
through spectacles of our mind. Our mind works largely by meta- 
phor and comparison, not always (or often) by relentless logic. 
When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a 
change in metaphor — not because the new guideline will be truer 
to nature (for neither the old nor the new metaphor lies “out 
there” in the woods), but because we need a shift to more fruitful 
perspectives, and metaphor is often ihe best agent of conceptual 

If we wish to understand larvae as working items in their 
own right, we should replace the developmental metaphor of 
child-adult with an economic simile that recognizes the basic 
distinction in function between larvae and imagoes — larvae as 
machines built for feeding and imagoes as devices for reproduc- 
tion. Fortunately, an obvious candidate presents itself on the 
very first page of the founding document itself — Adam Smith’s 
Wealth of Nations. We And our superior metaphor in the title of 
Chapter 1, “On the Division of Labor,” and in Smith’s opening 


The greatest improvement in the productive powers of 
labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judg- 
ment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to 
have been the effects of the division of labor. 

By allocating the different, sometimes contradictory, func- 
tions of feeding and reproduction to sequential phases of the life 
cycle, insects with complete metamorphosis have achieved a divi- 
sion of labor that permits a finer adaptive honing of each separate 

If you can dredge up old memories of your first college course 
in economics, you will remember that Adam Smith purposely 
chose a humble example to illustrate the division of labor — pin 
making. He identifies eighteen separate actions in drawing the 
wire, cutting, pointing, manufacture of the head, fastening head 
to shaft, and mounting the finished products in paper for sale. 
One man, he argues, could make fewer than twenty pins a day if 
he performed all these operations himself . But ten men, sharing 
the work by rigid division of labor, can manufacture about 48,000 
pins a day. A human existence spent pointing pins or fashioning 
their heads or pushing them into paper may strike us as the 
height of tedium, but larvae of A. luminosa encounter no obvious 
psychic stress in a life fully devoted to gastronomy. 

Hobbyists and professional entomologists will, no doubt, have 
recognized an unintended irony in Smith’s selection of pin mak- 
ing to illustrate the division of labor. Fins are the primary stock- 
in-trade of any insect collector. They are used to fasten the dry 
and chitinous imagoes — but not the fat and juicy larvae — to col- 
lecting boards and boxes. Thus, the imagoes of A. luminosa may 
end their natural life caught in a larval web, but if they happen to 
fall into the clutches of a human collector, they will, instead, be 
transfixed by the very object that symbolizes their fall from con- 
ceptual dominance to proper partnership. 


Nothing brings greater pleasure to a scholar than utility in exten- 
sion — the fruitfulness of a personal thought or idea when devel- 



Output from Ed Purcell’s computer program for arranging dots by the 
“stars,” above (random), and the “worms,” facing page (ordered by 
fields of inhibition around each dot), options. Note the curious psycho- 
logical effect. Most of us would see order in the strings and clumps of 
the figure just above, and would interpret the figure on the opposite 
page, with its lack of apparent pattern, as random. In fact, the opposite 
is true, and our ordinary conceptions are faulty. 

oped by colleagues beyond the point of one’s own grasp. I make a 
tangential reference in this essay to a common paradox — the ap- 
parent pattern of random arrays versus the perceived absence of 
sensible order in truly rule-bound systems. This paradox arises 
because random systems are highly clumped, and we perceive 
clumps as determined order. I gave the example of the heavens — 



where we “see” constellations because stars are distributed at ran- 
dom relative to the earth’s position. I contrasted our perception 
of heavenly order with the artificial “sky” of Waitomo Cave — 
where “stars” are the self-illuminated rear ends of fly larvae. 
Since these carnivorous larvae space themselves out in an or- 
dered array (because they eat anything in their vicinity and there- 
fore set up “zones of inhibition” around their own bodies), the 
Waitomo “sky” looks strange to us for its absence of clumping. 

My favorite colleague, Ed Purcell (Nobel laureate in physics 
and sometime collaborator on baseball statistics), read this tan- 
gential comment and wrote a quick computer program to illus- 
trate the effect. Into an array of square cells (144 units on the 
X-axis and 96 on the Y-axis for a total of 13,824 positions), Pur- 
cell placed either “stars” or “worms” by the following rules of 


randomness and order (following the heavens versus the fly lar- 
vae ofWaitomo). In the stars option, squares are simply occupied 
at random (a random number generator spits out a figure be- 
tween 1 and 13,824 and the appropriate square is inked in). In 
the worms option, the same generator spits out a number, but the 
appropriate square is inked in only if it and all surrounding 
squares are unoccupied (just as a worm sets up a zone of inhibi- 
tion about itself). Thus, worm squares are spaced out by a princi- 
ple of order; star squares are just filled in as the random numbers 
come up. 

Now examine the patterns produced with 1,500 stars and 
worms (still less than 50 percent capacity for worms, since one in 
four squares could be occupied, and 3,456 potential worm holes 
therefore exist). By ordinary vernacular perception, we could 
swear that the “stars” program must be generating causal order, 
while the “worms” program, for apparent lack of pattern, seems 
to be placing the squares haphazardly. Of course, exactly the 
opposite is true. In his letter to me, Ed wrote: 

What interests me more in the random field of “stars” is the 
overpowering impression of “features” of one sort or an- 
other. It is hard to accept the fact that any perceived fea- 
ture — be it string, clump, constellation, corridor, curved 
chain, lacuna — is a totally meaningless accident, having as 
its only cause the avidity for pattern of my eye and brain! 
Yet that is perfectly true in this case. 

I don’t know why our brains (by design or culture) equip us so 
poorly as probability calculators — but this nearly ubiquitous fail- 
ure constitutes one of the chief, and often dangerous, dilemmas 
of both intellectual and everyday life (the essays of Section 9, 
particularly number 31 on Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, discuss 
this subject at greater length). Ed Purcell adds, emphasizing the 
pervasiveness of misperception, even among people trained in 

If you ask a physics student to take pen in hand and sketch a 
random pattern of 1,500 dots, I suspect the result will look 
more like the “worms” option than the “stars.” 

To Be a Platypus 

long ago, garrulous old Polonius exalted brevity as 
the soul of wit, but later technology, rather than sweet reason, 
won his day and established verbal condensation as a form of art 
in itself. The telegram, sent for cash on the line and by the word, 
made brevity both elegant and economical — and the word tele- 
graphic entered our language for a style that conveys bare essen- 
tials and nothing else. 

The prize for transmitting most meaning with least verbosity 
must surely go to Sir Charles Napier, who subdued the Indian 
province of Sind and announced his triumph, via telegram to his 
superiors in London, with the minimal but fully adequate “Pec- 
cavi. ” This tale, in its own telegraphic way, speaks volumes about 
the social order and education of imperial Britain. In an age when 
all gentlemen studied Latin, and could scarcely rise in govern- 
ment service without a boost from the old boys of similar back- 
ground in appropriate public schools, Napier never doubted that 
his superiors would remember the first-person past tense of the 
verb peccare — and would properly translate his message and pun: 
I have sinned. 

The most famous telegram from my profession did not quite 
reach this admirable minimum, but it must receive honorable 
mention for conveying a great deal in few words. In 1884, W. H. 
Caldwell, a young Cambridge biologist, sent his celebrated tele- 
gram from Australia to a triumphant reading at the Annual Meet- 
ing of the British Association in Montreal. Caldwell wired: 
“Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.” 

This message may lack the ring of peccavi and might be viewed 



by the uninitiated as pure mumbo jumbo. But all professional 
biologists could make the translation and recognize that Caldwell 
had solved a particularly stubborn and vexatious problem of nat- 
ural history. In essence, his telegram said: The duckbilled platy- 
pus lays eggs. 

(Each word of Caldwell's telegram needs some explication. 
Oviparous animals lay eggs, while viviparous creatures give birth 
to live young; ovoviviparous organisms form eggs within their 
bodies, and young hatch inside their mothers. Sorry for the jar- 
gon so early in the essay, but these distinctions become impor- 
tant later on. Monotremes are that most enigmatic group of 
mammals from the Australian region — including the spiny 
echidna, actually two separate genera of anteaters, and the duck- 
billed platypus, an inhabitant of streams and creeks. An ovum is 
an egg cell, and meroblastic refers to a mode of cleavage, or 
initial division into embryonic cells, after fertilization. Yolk, the 
egg’s food supply, accumulates at one end of the ovum, called the 
vegetal pole. Cleavage begins at the other end, called the animal 
pole. If the egg is very yolky, the cleavage plane cannot penetrate 
and divide the vegetal end. Such an egg shows incomplete, or 
meroblastic, cleavage — division into discrete cells at the animal 
pole but little or no separation at the yolky end. Egg-laying land 
vertebrates, reptiles and birds, tend to produce yolky egg cells 
with meroblastic cleavage, while most mammals show complete, 
or holoblastic, cleavage. Therefore, in adding “ovum meroblas- 
tic” to “monotremes oviparous,” Caldwell emphasized the rep- 
tilian character of these paradoxical mammals — not only do they 
lay eggs but the eggs are typically reptilian in their yolkiness.) 

The platypus surely wins first prize in anybody’s contest to 
identify the most curious mammal. Harry Burrell, author of the 
classic volume on this anomaly (The Platypus: Its Discovery, Position, 
Form and Characteristics, Habits and Life History, 1927), wrote: 
“Every writer upon the platypus begins with an expression of 
wonder. Never was there such a disconcerting animal!” (I guess I 
just broke tradition by starting with the sublime Hamlet. ) 

The platypus sports an unbeatable combination for strange- 
ness: first, an odd habitat with curiously adapted form to match; 
second, the real reason for its special place in zoological his- 
tory — its engimatic melange of reptilian (or birdlike), with obvi- 
ous mammalian, characters. Ironically, the feature that first 


suggested premammalian affinity — the “duckbill” itself — sup- 
ports no such meaning. The platypus’s muzzle (the main theme 
of this column) is a purely mammalian adaptation to feeding in 
fresh waters, not a throwback to ancestral form — although the 
duckbill’s formal name embodies this false interpretation: Orni- 
thorhynchus anatinus (or the ducklike bird snout). 

Chinese taxidermists had long fooled (and defrauded) Euro- 
pean mariners with heads and trunks of monkeys stitched to the 
hind parts of fish — one prominent source for the persistence of 
mermaid legends. In this context, one can scarcely blame George 
Shaw for his caution in first describing the platypus (1799): 

Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extraordi- 
nary in its conformation, exhibiting the perfect resemblance 
of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped. 

So accurate is the similitude, that, at first view, it naturally 
excites the idea of some deceptive preparation. 

But Shaw could find no stitches, and the skeleton was surely 
discrete and of one functional piece (the premaxillary bones of 
the upper jaw extend into the bill and provide its major support). 
Shaw concluded: 

On a subject so extraordinary as the present, a degree of 
scepticism is not only pardonable but laudable; and I ought 
perhaps to acknowledge that I almost doubt the testimony 
of my own eyes with respect to the structure of this animal’s 
beak; yet must confess that I can perceive no appearance of 
any deceptive preparation . . . nor can the most accurate 
examination of expert anatomists discover any deception. 

The frontal bill may have provoked most astonishment, but the 
rear end also provided numerous reasons for amazement. The 
platypus sported only one opening, the cloaca, for all excretory 
and reproductive business (as in reptiles, but not most mammals, 
with their multiplicity of orifices for birth and various forms 
of excretion; Monotremata, or “one-holed,” the technical name 
for the platypus and allied echidna, honors this unmammalian 

Internally, the puzzle only increased. The oviducts did not 


unite into a uterus, but extended separately into the cloacal tube. 
Moreover, as in birds, the right ovary had become rudimentary, 
and all egg cells formed in the left ovary. This configuration inev- 
itably led to a most troubling hypothesis for biologists commit- 
ted, as most were in these pre-Darwinian days, to the division of 
nature into unambiguous, static categories: no uterus, no inter- 
nal space to form a placenta, a reproductive tract reptilian in 
form. All this suggested the unthinkable for a mammal — birth 
from eggs. The neighboring marsupials, with their pouches and 
tiny joeys, had already compromised the noble name of mammal. 
Would Australia also yield the ultimate embarrassment of fur 
from eggs? 

As anatomists studied this creature early in the nineteenth cen- 
tury, the mystery only deepened. The platypus looked like a per- 
fectly good mammal in all “standard” nonreproductive traits. It 
sported a full coat of hair and the defining anatomical signature 
of mammals — one bone, the dentary, in its lower jaw and three, 
the hammer, anvil, and stirrup, in its middle ear. (Reptiles have 
several jawbones and only one ear bone. Two reptilian jawbones 
became the hammer and anvil of the mammalian ear.) But pre- 
mammalian characters also extended beyond the reproductive 
system. In particular, the platypus grew an interclavicle bone in 
its shoulder girdle — a feature of reptiles shared by no placental 

What could this curious melange be, beyond a divine test of 
faith and patience? Debate centered on modes of reproduction, 
for eggs had not yet been found and Caldwell's telegram lay hall 
a century in the future. All three possibilities boasted their vocif- 
erous and celebrated defenders — for no great biologist could 
avoid such a fascinating creature, and all leaders of natural his- 
tory entered the fray. Meckel, the great German anatomist, and 
his French colleague Blainville predicted viviparity, argued that 
eggs would never be found, and accommodated the monotremes 
among ordinary mammals. E. Home, who first described the 
platypus in detail (1802), and the renowned English anatomist 
Richard Owen chose the middle pathway of ovoviviparity and 
argued that failure to find eggs indicated their dissolution within 
the female’s body. But the early French evolutionists, Lamarck 
and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, insisted that anatomy could 


not lie and that the platypus must be oviparous. Eggs, they ar- 
gued, would eventually be found. 

Geoffroy, by the way, coined the name monotreme in an interest- 
ing publication that reveals as much about French social history 
as peccavi indicated for imperial Britain. This issue of the Bulletin 
des sciences is labeled Thermidor, an 11 de la Repubhque. With revolu- 
tionary fervor at its height, France broke all ties witli the old 
order and started counting again from year one (1793). They also 
redivided the year into twelve equal months, and renamed the 
months to honor the seasons rather than old gods and emperors. 
Thus, Geoffroy christened the monotremes in a summer month 
(Thermidor) during the eleventh year ( 1 803) of the Republic (see 
Essay 24 for more on the French revolutionary calendar). 

Just one incident in the pre-Caldwell wars will indicate the in- 
tensity of nineteenth-century debate about platypuses and the 
relief at Caldwell’s resolution. When the great naturalists delin- 
eated their positions and defined the battleground, mammary 
glands had not been found in the female platypus — an apparent 
argument for those, like Geoffroy, who tried to distance mono- 
tremes as far as possible from mammals. Then, in 1824, Meckel 
discovered mammary glands. But since platypuses never do any- 
thing by the book, these glands were peculiar enough to spur 
more debate rather than conciliation. The glands were enor- 
mous, extending nearly from the forelegs to the hind limbs — and 
they led to no common opening, for no nipples could be found. 
(We now know that the female excretes milk through numerous 
pores onto a portion of her ventral surface, where the baby platy- 
pus laps it up.) Geoffroy, committed to oviparity and unwilling to 
admit anything like a mammalian upbringing, counterattacked. 
Meckel’s glands, he argued, were not mammary organs, but 
homologues of the odiferous flank glands of shrews, secreting 
substances for attraction of mates. When Meckel then extracted a 
milky substance from the mammary gland, Geoffroy admitted 
that the secretion must be food of some sort, but not milk. The 
glands, he now argued, are not mammary but a special feature of 
monotremes, used to secrete thin strands of mucus that thicken 
in water to provide food for young hatched from the undiscov- 
ered eggs. 

Owen then counterattacked to support Meckel for three rea- 


sons: The glands are largest shortly after the inferred time of 
birth (though Geoffrey expected the same for mucus used in 
feeding). The female echidna, living in sand and unable to 
thicken mucus in water, possesses glands of the same form. Fi- 
nally, Owen suspended the secretion in alcohol and obtained 
globules, like milk, not angular fragments, like mucus (an inter- 
esting commentary upon the rudimentary state of chemical anal- 
ysis during the 1830s). 

Geoffrey held firm — both to oviparity (correctly) and to the 
special status of feeding glands (incorrectly, for they are indeed 
mammary). In 1822, Geoffrey formally established the Mono- 
tremata as a fifth class of vertebrates, ranking equally with fishes, 
reptiles (then including amphibians), birds, and mammals. We 
may view Geoffrey as stubborn, and we certainly now regard the 
monotremes as mammals, however peculiar — but he presents a 
cogent and perceptive argument well worth our attention. Don’t 
shoehorn monotremes into the class Mammalia to make every- 
thing neat and foreclose discussion, he pleads. Taxonomies are 
guides to action, not passive devices for ordering. Leave mono- 
tremes separate and in uncomfortable limbo — “which suggests 
the necessity of further examination [and] is far better than an 
assimilation to normality, founded on strained and mistaken rela- 
tions, which invites indolence to believe and slumber” (letter to 
the Zoological Society of London, 1833). 

Geoffrey also kept the flame of oviparity alive, arguing that the 
cloaca and reproductive tract bore no other interpretation: “Such 
as the organ is, such must be its function; the sexual apparatus of 
an oviparous animal can produce nothing but an egg.” So Cald- 
well arrived in Australia in September 1883 — and finally resolved 
the great debate, eighty years after its inception. 

Caldwell, though barely a graduate, proceeded in the grand 
imperial style (he soon disappeared from biological view and be- 
came a successful businessman in Scotland). He employed 150 
aboriginals and collected nearly 1,400 echidnas — quite a heca- 
tomb for monotreme biology. On the subject of social insights, 
this time quite uncomfortable, Caldwell described his colonial 
style of collecting: 

The blacks were paid half-a-crown for every female, but the 

price of flour, tea, and sugar, which I sold to them, rose with 


the supply of Echidna. The half-crowns were, therefore, al- 
ways just sufficient to buy food enough to keep the lazy 
blacks hungry. 

It was, of course, often done — but rarely said so boldly and with- 
out apology. In any case, Caldwell eventually found the eggs of 
the platypus (usually laid two at a time and easily overlooked at 
their small size of less than an inch in length). 

Caldwell solved a specific mystery that had plagued zoology for 
nearly a century, but he only intensified the general problem. He 
had proved irrevocably that the platypus is a melange, not availa- 
ble for unambiguous placement into any major group of verte- 
brates. Geoffroy had been right about the eggs; Meckel about the 
mammary glands. 

The platypus has always suffered from false expectations based 
on human foibles. (This essay discusses the two stages of this 
false hoping, and then tries to rescue the poor platypus in its own 
terms.) During the half-century between its discovery and Dar- 
win’s Origin of Species, the platypus endured endless attempts to 
deny or mitigate its true melange of characters associated with 
different groups of vertebrates. Nature needed clean categories 
established by divine wisdom. An animal could not both lay eggs 
and feed its young with milk from mammary glands. So Geoffroy 
insisted upon eggs and no milk; Meckel upon milk and live birth. 

Caldwell’s discovery coincided with the twenty-fifth anniver- 
sary of Darwin’s Oiigin. By this time, evolution had made the idea 
of intermediacy (and melanges of characters) acceptable, if not 
positively intriguing. Yet, freed of one burden, the platypus as- 
sumed another — this time imposed by evolution, the very idea 
that had just liberated this poor creature from uncongenial shov- 
ing into rigid categories. The platypus, in short, shouldered (with 
its interclavicle bone) the burden of primitiveness. It would be a 
mammal, to be sure — but an amoeba among the gods; a tawdry, 
pitiable little fellow weighted down with the reptilian mark of 

Caldwell dispatched his epitome a century ago, but the platy- 
pus has never escaped. I have spent the last week as a nearly 
full-time reader of platypusology. With a few welcome exceptions 
(mostly among Australian biologists who know the creature inti- 
mately), nearly every article identifies something central about 


the platypus as undeveloped or inefficient relative to placental 
mammals — as if the undoubted presence of premammalian char- 
acters condemns each feature of the platypus to an unfinished, 
blundering state. 

Before I refute the myth of primitiveness for the platypus in 
particular, I should discuss the general fallacy that equates early 
with inefficient and still underlies so much of our failure to under- 
stand evolution properly. The theme has circulated through 
these essays for years — ladders and bushes. But I try to provide a 
new twist here — the basic distinction between early branching and 
undeveloped, or inefficient , structure. 

If evolution were a ladder toward progress, with reptiles on a 
rung below mammals, then I suppose that eggs and an interclavi- 
cle would identify platypuses as intrinsically wanting. But the Old 
Testament author of Proverbs, though speaking of wisdom 
rather than evolution, provided the proper metaphor, etz chayim: 
She is a tree of life to them who take hold upon her. Evolution 
proceeds by branching, and not (usually) by wholesale transfor- 
mation and replacement. Although a lineage of reptiles did 
evolve into mammals, reptiles remain with us in all their glorious 
abundance of snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodiles. Reptiles are 
doing just fine in their own way. 

The presence of premammalian characters in platypuses does 
not brand them as inferior or inefficient. But these characters do 
convey a different and interesting message. They do signify an 
early branching of monotreme ancestors from the lineage lead- 
ing to placental mammals. This lineage did not lose its reptilian 
characters all at once, but in the halting and piecemeal fashion so 
characteristic of evolutionary trends. A branch that split from this 
central lineage after the defining features of mammals had 
evolved (hair and an earful of previous jawbones, for example) 
might retain other premammalian characters (birth from eggs 
and an interclavicle) as a sign of early derivation, not a mark of 

The premammalian characters of the platypuses only identify 
the antiquity of their lineage as a separate branch of the mam- 
malian tree. If anything, this very antiquity might give the platy- 
pus more scope (that is, more time) to become what it really is, in 
opposition to the myth of primitivity: a superbly engineered crea- 
ture for a particular, and unusual, mode of life. The platypus is an 



elegant solution for mammalian life in streams — not a primitive 
relic of a bygone world. Old does not mean hidebound in a Dar- 
winian world. 

Once we shuck the false expectation of primitiveness, we can 
view the platypus more fruitfully as a bundle of adaptations. 
Within this appropriate theme of good design, we must make one 
further distinction between shared adaptations of all mammals 
and particular inventions of platypuses. The first category in- 
cludes a coat of fur well adapted for protecting platypuses in the 
(often) cold water of their streams (the waterproof hair even traps 
a layer of air next to the skin, thus providing additional insula- 
tion). As further protection in cold water and on the same theme 
of inherited features, platypuses can regulate their body temper- 
atures as well as most “higher” mammals, although the assump- 
tion of primitivity stalled the discovery of this capacity until 
1973 — before that, most biologists had argued that platypus tem- 
peratures plummeted in cold waters, requiring frequent returns 
to the burrow for warming up. (My information on the ecology of 
modern platypuses comes primarily from Tom Grant’s excellent 
book, The Platypus, New South Wales University Press, 1984, and 
from conversations with Frank Carrick in Brisbane. Grant and 
Carrick are Australia's leading professional students of platy- 
puses, and I thank them for their time and care.) 

These features, shared by passive inheritance with other mam- 
mals, certainly benefit the platypus, but they provide no argu- 
ment for my theme of direct adaptation — the replacement of 
restraining primitivity by a view of the platypus as actively evolv- 
ing in its own interest. Many other features, however, including 
nearly everything that makes the platypus so distinctive, fall 
within the second category of special invention. 

Platypuses are relatively small mammals (the largest known 
weighed just over five pounds and barely exceeded two feet from 
tip to tail). They construct burrows in the banks of creeks and 
rivers: long (up to sixty feet) for nesting; shorter for daily use. 
They spend most of their life in the water, searching for food 
(primarily insect larvae and other small invertebrates) by probing 
into bottom sediments with their bills. 

The special adaptations of platypuses have fitted them in a 
subtle and intricate way for aquatic life. The streamlined body 
moves easily through water. The large, webbed forefeet propel 


the animal forward by alternate kicks, while the tail and partially 
webbed rear feet act as rudders and steering devices (in digging a 
burrow, the platypus anchors with its rear feet and excavates with 
its forelimbs). The bill works as a feeding structure par excel- 
lence, as I shall describe in a moment. Other features undoubt- 
edly serve in the great Darwinian game of courtship, 
reproduction, and rearing — but we know rather little about this 
vital aspect of platypus life. As an example, males bear a sharp, 
hollow spur on their ankles, attached by a duct to a poison gland 
in their thighs. These spurs, presumably used in combat with 
competing males, grow large during the breeding season. In cap- 
tivity, males have killed others with poison from their spurs, and 
many platypuses, both male and female, sport distinctive punc- 
tures when captured in the wild. 

Yet even this long and impressive list of special devices has 
been commonly misrepresented as yet another aspect (or spin- 
off) of pervasive primitiveness. Burrell, in his classic volume 
(1927), actually argued that platypuses develop such complex 
adaptations because simple creatures can’t rely upon the flexibil- 
ity of intelligence and must develop special structures for each 
required action. Burrell wrote: 

Man . . . has escaped the need for specialization because his 
evolution has been projected outside himself into an evolu- 
tion of tools and weapons. Other animals in need of tools 
and weapons must evolve them from their own bodily parts; 
we therefore frequently find a specialized adaptation to en- 
vironmental needs grafted on to primitive simplicity of 

You can’t win in such a world. You are either primitive prima 
facie or specialized as a result of lurking and implicit simplicity! 
From such a Catch-22, platypuses can only be rescued by new 
concepts, not additional observations. 

As a supreme irony, and ultimate defense of adaptation versus 
ineptitude, the structure that built the myth of primitivity — the 
misnamed duckbill itself — represents the platypus’s finest special 
invention. The platypus bill is not a homologue of any feature in 
birds. It is a novel structure, uniquely evolved by monotremes 
(the echidna carries a different version as its long and pointed 


snout). The bill is not simply a hard, inert horny structure. Soft 
skin covers the firm substrate, and this skin houses a remarkable 
array of sensory organs. In fact, and strange to tell, the platypus, 
when under water, shuts down all its other sensory systems and 
relies entirely upon its bill to locate obstacles and food. Flaps of 
skin cover tiny eyes and nonpinnate ears when a platypus dives, 
while a pair of valves closes off the nostrils under water. 

E. Home, in the first monograph of platypus anatomy (1802), 
made an astute observation that correctly identified the bill as a 
complex and vital sensory organ. He dissected the cranial nerves 
and found almost rudimentary olfactory and optic members but a 
remarkably developed trigeminal, carrying information from the 
face to the brain. With great insight, Home compared the platy- 
pus bill to a human hand in function and subtlety. (Home never 
saw a live platypus and worked only by inference from anatomy.) 
He wrote: 

The olfactory nerves are small and so are the optic nerves; 
but the fifth pair which supplies the muscles of the face are 
uncommonly large. We should be led from this circum- 
stance to believe, that the sensibility of the different parts of 
the bill is very great, and therefore it answers to the purpose 
of a hand, and is capable of nice discrimination in its feeling. 

Then, in the same year that Caldwell discovered eggs, the En- 
glish biologist E. B. Poulton found the primary sensory organs of 
the bill. He located numerous columns of epithelial cells, each 
underlain by a complex of neural transmitters. He called them 
"push rods,” arguing by analogy with electrical bells that a sen- 
sory stimulus (a current of water or an object in bottom sedi- 
ments) would depress the column and ignite the neural spark. 

A set of elegant experiments in modern neurophysiology by 
R. C. Bohringer and M. J. Rowe (1977 and 1981) can only in- 
crease our appreciation for the fine-tuned adaptation of the platy- 
pus bill. They found Poulton’s rods over the bill’s entire surface, 
but four to six times more densely packed at the anterior border 
of the upper bill, where platypuses must first encounter obstacles 
and food items. They noted different kinds of nerve receptors 
under the rods, suggesting that platypuses can distinguish vary- 
ing kinds of signals (perhaps static versus moving components or 


live versus dead food). Although individual rods may not provide 
sufficient information for tracing the direction of a stimulus, each 
rod maps to a definite location on the brain, strongly implying 
that the sequence of activation among an array of rods permits 
the platypus to identify the size and location of objects. 

Neurophysiologists can locate areas of the brain responsible 
for activating definite parts of the body and draw a “map” of the 
body upon the brain itself. (These experiments proceed from 
either direction. Either one stimulates a body part and records 
the pattern of activity in a set of electrodes implanted into the 
brain, or one pulses a spot on the brain and determines the re- 
sulting motion of body parts.) We have no finer demonstrations 
of evolutionary adaptation than numerous brain maps that re- 
cord the importance of specially developed organs by their un- 
usually enlarged areas of representation upon the cortex. Thus, a 
raccoon’s brain map displays an enormous domain for its fore- 
paws, a pig’s for its snout, a spider monkey’s for its tail. Bohr- 
inger and Rowe have added the platypus to this informative 
array. A map of the platypus’s cortex is mostly bill. 

We have come a long way from the first prominent evolution- 
ary interpretation ever presented for the platypus bill. In 1 844, in 
the major pre-Darwinian defense of evolution written in English, 
Robert Chambers tried to derive a mammal from a bird in two 
great leaps, via the intermediate link of a duckbilled platypus. 
One step. Chambers wrote, 

would suffice in a goose to give its progeny the body of a rat, 
and produce the ornithorhynchus, or might give the prog- 
eny of an ornithorhynchus the mouth and feet of a true 
rodent, and thus complete at two stages the passage from 
the aves to the mammalia. 

The platypus, having suffered such slings and arrows of outra- 
geous fortune in imposed degradation by human hands, has cast 
its arms (and its bill) against a sea of troubles and vindicated 
itself. The whips and scorns of time shall heal. The oppressor’s 
wrong, the proud man’s contumely have been reversed by mod- 
ern studies — enterprises of great pith and moment. The platypus 
is one honey of an adaptation. 

191 Bligh’s Bounty 

in 1789, a British naval officer discovered some is- 
lands near Australia and lamented his inability to provide a good 

Being constantly wet, it was with the utmost difficulty I 
could open a book to write, and I am sensible that what I 
have done can only serve to point out where these lands are 
to be found again, and give the idea of their extent. 

As he wrote these lines. Captain William Bligh was steering a 
longboat with eighteen loyal crew members into the annals of 
human heroism at sea — via his 4,000-mile journey to Timor, ac- 
complished without loss of a single man, and following the sei- 
zure of his ship, The Bounty, in history’s most famous mutiny. 

Bligh may have been overbearing; he surely wins no awards for 
insight into human psychology. But history and Charles Laugh- 
ton have not treated him fairly either. Bligh was committed, me- 
ticulous, and orderly to a fault — how else, in such peril, could he 
have bothered to describe some scattered pieces of new Pacific 
real estate. 

Bligh’s habit of close recording yielded other benefits, includ- 
ing one forgotten item to science. Obsessed by the failure of his 
Bounty mission to bring Tahitian breadfruit as food for West In- 
dian slaves, Bligh returned to Tahiti aboard the Providence and 
successfully unloaded 1,200 trees at Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1793 
(his ship was described as a floating forest). En route, he stopped 
in Australia and had an interesting meal. 



George Tobin, one of Bligh’s officers, described their quarry as 

a kind of sloth about the size of a roasting pig with a probos- 
cis 2 or 3 inches in length. . . . On the back were short quills 
like those of the Porcupine. . . . The animal was roasted and 
found of a delicate flavor. 

Bligh himself made a drawing of his creature before the banquet. 
The officers of the Providence had eaten an echidna, one of Aus- 
tralia’s most unusual mammals — an egg-laying anteater closely 
related to the duckbilled platypus. 

Bligh brought his drawing back to England. In 1802, it ap- 
peared as a figure (reproduced here) accompanying the first tech- 
nical description of the echidna’s anatomy by Everard Home in 
the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (G. Shaw had pub- 
lished a preliminary and superficial description in 1792). 

Home discovered the strange mix of reptilian and mammalian 
features that has inspired interest and puzzlement among biolo- 
gists ever since. He also imposed upon the echidna, for the first 
time, the distinctive burden of primitivity that has continually 
hampered proper zoological understanding of all monotremes, 
the egg-laying mammals of Australia. Home described the 
echidna as not quite all there in mammalian terms, a lesser form 
stamped with features of lower groups: 

These characters distinguish [the echidna] in a very remark- 
able manner, from all other quadrupeds, giving this new 
tribe a resemblance in some respects to birds, in others to 
the Amphibia; so that it may be considered as an intermedi- 
ate link between the classes of Mammalia, Aves, and Am- 

Unfortunately, Home could not study the organ that most 
clearly belies the myth of primitivity. “The brain,” he wrote, “was 
not in a state to admit of particular examination.” Home did have 
an opportunity to infer the echidna’s anomalously large brain 
from the internal form of its skull, well drawn on the plate just 
preceding Bligh’s figure (and also reproduced here). But Home 
said nothing about this potential challenge to his general inter- 

bligh’s bounty I 283 

Original drawing of an echidna by none other than 
Captain Bligh of Bounty fame. nf.g. no. 337535. cour- 

And so the burden of primitivity stuck tenaciously to echidnas, 
and continues to hold fast in our supposedly more sophisticated 
age. Some great zoologists have struggled against this conve- 
nient fallacy, most notably the early French evolutionist Etienne 
Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who coined the name Monotremata (see 


Essay 18) and labored unsuccessfully to establish the echidna and 
platypus as a new class of vertebrates, separate from both mam- 
mals and reptiles and not merely inferior to placentals. By his 
own manifesto, he chose his strategy explicitly to avoid the con- 
ceptual lock that assumptions of primitivity would clamp upon 
our understanding of monotremes. He wrote in 1827: 

What is defective, I repeat, is our manner of perception, our 
way of conceiving the organization of monotremes; that is, 
our determination, made a priori, to join them violently to 
mammals [by violemment, Geoffrey means, of course, “with- 
out any conceptual justification”], to place them in the same 
class and, after our disappointments and false judgments, 
then to make our unjust grievances heard, as when we speak 
of them as mammals essentially and necessarily outside the 

But Geoffrey’s legitimate complaint, so eloquently expressed, 
did not prevail, and the myth of primitivity continues, despite its 
blatant flaw. As I argue in the preceding essay on platypuses, the 
myth of primitivity rests upon a logical confusion between early 
branching from the ancestors of placental mammals (the true 
meaning of reptilian characters retained by monotremes) and 
structural inferiority. Unless geological age of branching is a sure 
guide to level of anatomical organization — as it is not — egg lay- 
ing and interclavicle bones do not brand platypuses and echidnas 
as inferior mammals. 

Everard Home’s 1802 figure of an echidna’s skull. The large size of the 
brain was apparent even then. neg. no. 337429. courtesy department of 


bligh’s bounty | 285 

Beyond this general defense, echidnas can provide ample spe- 
cific evidence of their adequacy. They are, first of all, a clear 
success in ecological terms. Echidnas live all over the Australian 
continent (and extend into Papua-New Guinea), the only native 
mammal with such a wide range. Moreover, the echidna, as a 
single struggling relict, ranks with the rat and the monkey (those 
meaningless synecdoches of the psychological literature) as an 
absurd abstraction of nature’s richness. Echidnas come as two 
species in two separate genera and with quite different habits. 
Tachyglossus aculeatus (the Australian form with Papuan exten- 
sions) rips apart ant and termite nests with its stout forelimbs and 
collects the inhabitants on its sticky tongue. The larger and lon- 
ger-snouted Zaglossus bruijni of Papua-New Guinea lives on a 
nearly exclusive diet of earthworms. Moreover, three other spe- 
cies, including the “giant” echidna, Zaglossus hacketti, have been 
found as fossils in Australia. Echidnas are a successful and at least 
modestly varied group. 

But echidnas hold a far more important ace in the hole as their 
ultimate defense against charges of primitivity. The same cultural 
biases that lead us to classify creatures as primitive or advanced 
have established the form and function of brains as our primary 
criterion of ranking. Echidnas have big and richly convoluted 
brains. Scientists have recognized this anomaly in the tale of 
primitivity for more than a century — and they have developed an 
array of arguments, indeed a set of traditions, for working around 
such an evident and disconcerting fact. Large brains undoubtedly 
serve echidnas well; but they also help to instruct us about an 
important issue in the practice of science — how do scientists treat 
factual anomalies? What do we do with evidence that challenges a 
comfortable view of nature’s order? 

The echidna’s brain refutes the myth of primitivity with a dou- 
ble whammy — size and conformation. (I discuss only the Aus- 
tralian species, Tachyglossus aculeatus; its larger Papua-New 
Guinea relative, Zaglossus, remains virtually unknown to sci- 
ence — for basic information about echidnas, see the two books by 
M. Griffiths listed in the bibliography.) Since mammalian brains 
increase more slowly than body weight along the so-called 
mouse-to-elephant curve, we can use neither absolute nor rela- 
tive brain weight as a criterion. (Big mammals have absolutely 
large brains as an uninteresting consequence of body size, while 


small mammals have relatively large brains because brains in- 
crease more slowly than bodies.) Biologists have therefore devel- 
oped a standard criterion: measured brain weight relative to 
expected brain weight for an average mammal of the same body 
size. This ratio, dubbed EQ_ (or encephalization quotient) in 
amusing analogy with you know what, measures 1 .0 for mammals 
right on the mouse-to-elephant curve, above 1 .0 for brainier than 
average mammals, and less than 1.0 for brain weights below the 

To provide some feel for the range of EQN, so-called basal 
insectivores — a selected stem group among the order tradition- 
ally ranked lowest among placental mammals — record a mean of 
0.31 1. Adding advanced insectivores, the average rises to 0.443. 
Rodents, a perfectly respectable group (and dominant among 
mammals by sheer number), weigh in with a mean EQ_of 0.652. 
(Primates and carnivores rank consistently above 1.0.) Mono- 
tremes are not, by this criterion, mental giants — their EQ’s range 
from 0.50 to 0.75 — but they rank way above the traditional primi- 
tives among placentals and right up there with rodents and other 
“respected'’ groups. Monotremes continue to shine by other 
standards of size as well. Some neurologists regard the ratio of 
brain to spinal cord as a promising measure of mental advance. 
Fish generally dip below 1:1 (spinal cord heavier than brain). We 
top-heavy humans tip the scale at 50:1; cats score 4:1. The 
“lowly" echidna waddles in front of tabby at approximately 6:1. 

By conformation, rather than simple size alone, echidnas are 
even more impressive. The neocortex, the putative site of higher 
mental functions, occupies a larger percentage of total brain 
weight in supposedly advanced creatures. The neocortex of basal 
insectivores averages 13 percent of brain weight; the North 
American marsupial opossum records 22 percent. Echidnas score 
43 percent (platypuses 48 percent), right up there with the 
prosimians (54 percent), basal group of the lordly primates. (All 
my figures for brain sizes come from H. J. Jerison, 1973, and P. 
Pirlot and J. Nelson, 1978.) 

The neocortex of echidnas is not only expanded and nearly 
spherical as in primates; its surface is also richly convoluted in a 
series of deep folds and bumps (sulci and gyri), a traditional crite- 
rion of mental advance in mammals. (Curiously, by comparison, 

bligh’s bounty | 287 

the platypus neocortex, while equally expanded and spherical, is 
almost completely smooth.) 

Many famous nineteenth-century neuroanatomists studied 
monotreme brains, hoping to understand the basis of human 
mental triumph by examining its lowly origins. Echidnas pro- 
vided an endless source of puzzlement and frustration. William 
Henry Flower dissected an echidna in 1865 and wrote of “this 
most remarkable brain, with its largely developed and richly con- 
voluted hemispheres.” He admitted: “It is difficult to see in many 
of the peculiarities of their brain even an approach in the direc- 
tion of that of the bird.” And Grafton Elliot Smith, the great 
Australian anatomist who later fell for Piltdown Man in such a big 
way, wrote with evident befuddlement in 1902: 

The most obtrusive feature of this brain is the relatively 
enormous development of the cerebral hemispheres. ... In 
addition, the extent of the cortex is very considerably in- 
creased by numerous deep sulci. The meaning of this large 
neopallium is quite incomprehensible. The factors which 
the study of other mammalian brains has shown to be the 
determinants of the extent of the cortex fail completely to 
explain how it is that a small animal of the lowliest status in 
the mammalian series comes to possess this large cortical 

One might have anticipated that scientists, so enlightened by 
monotreme mentality, would simply abandon the myth of 
primitivity. But prompt submission to items of contrary evidence 
is not, despite another prominent myth (this time about scientific 
procedure), the usual response of scientists to nature’s assaults 
upon traditional beliefs. Instead, most students of monotreme 
brains have recorded their surprise and then sought different 
criteria, again to affirm the myth of primitivity. 

A favorite argument cites the absence in monotremes (and 
marsupials as well) of a corpus callosum — the bundle of fibers 
connecting the right and left hemispheres of "higher” mental 
processing in placental mammals. In a wonderful example of bla- 
tantly circular logic, A. A. Abbie, one of Australia’s finest natural 
historians, wrote in a famous article of 1941 (commissures, to a 


neuroanatomist, are connecting bands of neural tissue, like the 
corpus callosum): 

Since in mammals cerebral evolution and with it any pro- 
gressive total evolution is reflected so closely in the state of 
the cerebral commissures it is clear that the taxonomic sig- 
nificance of these commissures far transcends that of any 
other physical character. 

In other words, since we know (a priori) that monotremes are 
primitive, search for the character that affirms a lowly status (lack 
of a corpus callosum) and proclaim this character, ipso facto, 
more important than any other (size of brain, convolutions, or 
any other indication of monotreme adequacy). (I shall have more 
to say about commissures later on, but let me just mention for 
now that lack of a corpus callosum does not preclude communi- 
cation across the cerebral hemispheres. Monotremes possess at 
least two other commissures — the hippocampal and the ante- 
rior — capable of making connections, though by a route more 
circuitous than the pathway of the corpus callosum.) 

This tradition of switching to another criterion continues in 
modern studies. In their 1978 article on monotreme brain sizes, 
for example, Pirlot and Nelson admit, after recording volumes 
and convolutions for echidnas: “It is very difficult to isolate crite- 
ria that clearly establish the ‘primitiveness’ of monotreme 
brains.” But they seek and putatively find, though they honorably 
temper their good cheer with yet another admission of the puz- 
zling size of the monotreme neocortex: 

This cortex could be considered to be among the most 
primitive mammalian cortices on the basis of the low num- 
ber and low density of large, especially pyramidal neurons. 

It is surprising to find that a very high proportion of cortex 
is neocortex. This does not necessarily mean an advanced 
degree of progressiveness, although the two are usually re- 

The basic data on size and external conformation of echidna 
brains have been recorded (and viewed as troubling) for more 
than a century. More sophisticated information on neural fine 

bligh’s bounty | 289 

structure and actual use of the cortical apparatus in learning has 
been gathered during the past twenty years — all affirming, again 
and again, the respectability of echidna intelligence. 

In 1964, R. A. Lende published the first extensive map of local- 
ized sensory and motor areas on the echidna’s cerebral cortex. (I 
discuss the general procedures of such study in the preceding 
essay on platypus brains. P. S. Ulinski, 1984, has recently con- 
firmed and greatly extended Lende’s work in a series of elegant 
experiments.) Lende discovered a surprising pattern of localiza- 
tion, basically mammalian in character but different from placen- 
tal mappings. He identified separate areas for visual, auditory, 
and sensory control (the motor area overlapped the sensory re- 
gion and extended forward to an additional section of the cor- 
tex), all demarcated one from the other by constant sulci (fissures 
of the cortex) and located together at the rear of the cortex. 

Most surprisingly, these areas abut one another without any 
so-called association cortex in between. (Association cortex 
includes areas of the cerebral surface that do not control any 
specific sensory or motor function and may play a role in coordi- 
nating and integrating the basic inputs. For this reason, amount 
and position of association cortex have sometimes been ad- 
vanced as criteria of “higher” mental function. But such negative 
definitions are troubling and should not be pushed too hard or 
far.) In any case, Lende identified a relatively enormous area of 
unspecified (perhaps association) cortex in front of his mapped 
sensory and motor areas. Lende concluded, in a statement oft- 
quoted against those who maintain the myth of primitivity: 

Ahead of the posteriorly situated sensory and motor areas 
established in this study there is relatively more “frontal 
cortex” than in any other mammal, including man, the func- 
tion of which remains unexplained. 

Other studies have tried to push the echidna brain to its practi- 
cal limits by imposing upon these anteaters all the modern appa- 
ratus of mazes, levers, and food rewards so favored by the science 
of comparative psychology. Echidnas have performed remark- 
ably well in all these studies, again confuting the persistent im- 
pression of stupidity still conveyed by textbooks, and even by the 
most “official” of all sources — the Australian Museum’s Complete 


Book of Australian Mammals, edited by R. Strahan (1983), which 
insists without evidence: 

In this last respect [brainpower], monotremes are inferior 
to typical placental mammals and, probably, to typical mar- 
supials. The paucity of living monotremes may therefore be 
due to their being less bright, less adaptable in their behav- 
ior, than other mammals. 

To cite just three studies among several of similar intent and 

1. Saunders, Chen, and Pridmore (1971) ran echidnas through 
a simple two-choice T-maze (down a central channel, then either 
right or left into a bin of food or a blank wall). They trained 
echidnas to move in one direction (location of the chow, of 
course), then switched the food box to the other arm of the T. In 
such studies of so-called habit-reversal learning, most fish never 
switch, birds learn very slowly, mammals rapidly. Echidnas 
showed quick improvement with a steady reduction in errors — 
and at typically mammalian rates. Half the experiments (seven of 
fifteen) on well-trained echidnas yielded the optimal perform- 
ance of “one-trial reversal” (you switch the food box and the 
animal goes the wrong way — where the food used to be — the first 
time, then immediately cottons on and heads in the other direc- 
tion, toward the chow, each time). Rats often show one-trial re- 
versal learning, birds never. 

2. Buchmann and Rhodes (1978) tested echidnas for their abil- 
ity to learn positional (right or left) and visual-tactile (black and 
rough versus white and smooth) cues — with echidnas pushing the 
appropriate lever to gain their food reward. As an obvious testi- 
mony to mental adequacy, they report that “unsuccessful (unre- 
warded) responses were often associated with vigorous kicking at 
the operanda.” Echidnas learned at a characteristic rate for pla- 
cental mammals and also remembered well. One animal, retested 
a month later, performed immediate one-trial reversals. 

Buchmann and Rhodes compared their echidnas with other 
animals tested in similar procedures. Crabs and goldfish did not 
show improvement (did not learn) over time. Echidnas displayed 
great variation in their speed of learning — one improved faster 

bligh’s bounty I 291 

(and one slower) than rats; all echidnas performed better than 
cats. Take these results (and the reward for success as well) with a 
grain of salt because numbers are limited and procedures varied 
widely among studies — but still, the single best performer on the 
entire chart was an echidna. 

Buchmann and Rhodes conclude: “There is no evidence that 
the performance of echidnas is inferior to eutherian [placental] 
or metatherian [marsupial] mammals.” They end by ridiculing 
the “quaint, explicitly or tacitly-held views that echidnas are little 
more than animated pin-cushions, or, at the best, glorified rep- 

3. Gates (1978) studied learning in visual discrimination (black 
versus white, and various complex patterns of vertical and hori- 
zontal striping). His results parallel the other studies — echidnas 
learned quickly, at typical mammalian rates. But he added an 
interesting twist that confutes the only serious, direct argument 
ever offered from brain anatomy for monotreme inferiority — the 
claim that absence of a corpus callosum precludes transfer be- 
tween the cerebral hemispheres, thereby compromising 
“higher” mental functions. 

Gates occluded one eye and taught echidnas to distinguish 
black from white panels with the other eye. They reached “crite- 
rion performance” in an average of 100 trials. He then uncovered 
the occluded eye, bandaged the one that had overseen the initial 
learning, and did the experiment again. If no information passes 
from one cerebral hemisphere to the other, then previous learn- 
ing on one side of the brain should offer no help to the other, and 
the 1 00-trial average should persist. But echidnas only needed 40 
trials to reach criterion with the second eye. 

Gates conjectures that information is either passing across the 
other two commissures in the absence of a corpus callosum, or 
via the few optic fibers that do not cross to the other side of the 
brain. (In vertebrate visual systems, inputs from the right eye go 
to the left hemisphere of the brain, left eye to the right hemi- 
sphere; thus, each eye “informs” the opposite hemisphere. But 
about 1 percent of optic fibers do not cross over, and therefore 
map to their own hemisphere. These few fibers may sneak a little 
learning to the hemisphere dependent upon the occluded eye.) 
In addition, direct evidence of electrical stimulation has shown 


that inputs to one hemisphere can elicit responses in correspond- 
ing parts of the other hemisphere — information clearly gets 
across in the absence of a corpus callosum. 

The solution to the paradox of such adequate intelligence in 
such a primitive mammal is stunningly simple. The premise — the 
myth of primitivity itself— is dead wrong. To say it one more, and 
one last, time: The reptilian features of monotremes only record 
their early branching from the ancestry of placental mammals — 
and time of branching is no measure of anatomical complexity or 
mental status. 

Monotremes have evolved separately from placentals for a 
long time — more than enough for both groups to reach, by paral- 
lel evolution in independent lineages, advanced levels of mental 
functioning permitted by their basic, shared mammalian design. 
The primary evidence for parallel evolution has been staring us 
in the face for a century, forming part of the standard literature 
on echidnas, well featured even in primary documents that up- 
hold the myth of primitivity. We know that the echidna’s brain 
attained its large size by an independent route. The platypus has 
a smooth (if bulbous) brain. The echidna evolved complex ridges 
and folds on its cerebral surface as a special feature of its own 
lineage. These sulci and gyri cannot be identified (homologized) 
with the well-known convolutions of placental brains. The 
echidna brain is so different, by virtue of a separate evolution to 
large size, that its convolutions have been named by Greek letters 
to avoid any misplaced comparison with the different ridges 
and folds of placental brains. And Grafton Elliot Smith, the man 
most puzzled by echidna brains, did the naming — apparently 
without realizing that the very need for such separate designa- 
tions provided the direct evidence that could refute the myth of 

In his eloquent plea for monotremes (1827), Geoffrey Saint- 
Hilaire wrote brilliantly about the subtle interplay of fact and 
theory in science. He recognized the power of theory to guide the 
discovery of fact and to set a context for fruitful interpretation. 
(“To limit our efforts to the simple practicalities of an ocular 
examination would be to condemn the activities of the mind.”) 
But he also acknowledged the flip side of useful guidance, the 
extraordinary power of theory to restrict our vision, in particular 
to render “obvious” facts nearly invisible, by denying them a 

bligh’s bounty 


sensible context. (“At first useless, these facts had to remain un- 
perceived until the moment when the needs and progress of sci- 
ence provoked us to discover them.”) Or as Warner Oland, the 
Swedish pseudo-Oriental Charlie Chan, once said in one of his 
most delightfully anachronistic pseudo-Confucian sayings 
(i Charlie Chan in Egypt, 1935): “Theory like mist on eyeglasses. 
Obscure facts.” 

Here Goes Nothing 

goliath paid the highest of prices to learn the 
most elementary of lessons — thou shalt not judge intrinsic qual- 
ity by external appearance. When the giant first saw David, “he 
disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair 
countenance” (1 Sam. 17:42). Saul had been similarly unim- 
pressed when David presented himself as an opponent for Goli- 
ath and savior of Israel. Saul doubted out loud: “for thou art but a 
youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (1 Sam. 17:33). But 
David persuaded Saul by telling him that actions speak louder 
than appearances — for David, as a young shepherd, had rescued 
a lamb from a predatory lion: “I went out after him, and smote 
him, and delivered it out of his mouth” (1 Sam. 17:35). 

This old tale presents a double entendre to introduce this 
essay — first as a preface to my opening story about a famous in- 
sight deceptively clothed in drab appearance; and second as a 
quirky lead to the body of this essay, a tale of animals that really 
do deliver from their mouths: Rheobatrachus situs, an Australian 
frog that swallows its fertilized eggs, broods tadpoles in its stom- 
ach, and gives birth to young frogs through its mouth. 

Henry Walter Bates landed at Para (now Belem), Brazil, near 
the mouth of the Amazon, in 1 848. He arrived with Alfred Russel 
Wallace, who had suggested the trip to tropical jungles, arguing 
that a direct study of nature at her richest might elucidate the 
origin of species and also provide many fine specimens for sale. 
Wallace returned to England in 1852, but Bates remained for 
eleven years, collecting nearly 8,000 new species (mostly insects) 
and exploring the entire Amazon valley. 



In 1863, Bates published his two-volume classic, perhaps the 
greatest work of nineteenth-century natural history and travel, 
The Naturalist on the River Amazons. But two years earlier, Bates had 
hidden his most exciting discovery in a technical paper with a 
disarmingly pedestrian title: “Contributions to an Insect Fauna 
of the Amazon Valley,” published in the Transactions of the Lin- 
naean Society. The reviewer of Bates’s paper (Natural History Re- 
views, 1863, pp. 219-224) lauded Bates’s insight but lamented 
the ill-chosen label: “From its unpretending and somewhat in- 
definite title,” he wrote, “we fear [that Bates’s work] may be over- 
looked in the ever-flowing rush of scientific literature.” The 
reviewer therefore sought to rescue Bates from his own modesty 
by providing a bit of publicity for the discovery. Fortunately, he 
had sufficient oomph to give Bates a good send-off. The reviewer 
was Charles Darwin, and he added a section on Bates’s insight to 
the last edition of the Origin of Species. 

Bates had discovered and correctly explained the major style of 
protective mimicry in animals. In Batesian mimicry (for the phe- 
nomenon now bears his name), uncommon and tasty animals 
(the mimics) gain protection by evolving uncanny resemblance to 
abundant and foul-tasting creatures (the models) that predators 
learn to avoid. The viceroy butterfly is a dead ringer for the mon- 
arch, which, as a caterpillar, consumes enough noxious poisons 
from its favored plant foods to sicken any untutored bird. (Vomit- 
ing birds have become a cliche of natural history films. Once 
afflicted, twice shy, as the old saying goes. The tale may be more 
than twice told, but many cognoscenti do not realize that the 
viceroy’s name memorializes its mimicry — for this butterfly is the 
surrogate, or vice-king, to the ruler, or monarch, itself.) 

Darwin delighted in Bates’s discovery because he viewed mim- 
icry as such a fine demonstration of evolution in action. Creation- 
ism, Darwin consistently argued, cannot be disproved directly 
because it claims to explain everything. Creationism becomes im- 
pervious to test and, therefore, useless to science. Evolutionists 
must proceed by showing that any creationist explanation be- 
comes a reductio ad absurdum by twists of illogic and special plead- 
ing required to preserve the idea of God’s unalterable will in the 
face of evidence for historical change. 

In his review of Bates’s paper, Darwin emphasizes that crea- 
tionists must explain the precision of duplicity by mimics as a 


simple act of divine construction — “they were ilms clothed from 
the hour of their creation,” he writes. Such a claim, Darwin then 
argues, is even worse than wrong because it stymies science by 
providing no possible test for truth or falsity — it is an argument 
“made at the expense of putting an effectual bar to all further 
inquiry.” Darwin then presents his reductio ad absurdum , showing 
that any fair-minded person must view mimicry as a product of 
historical change. 

Creationists had made a central distinction between true spe- 
cies, or entities created by God, and mere varieties, or products 
of small changes permitted within a created type (breeds of dogs 
or strains of wheat, for example). But Bates had shown that some 
mimics are true species and others only varieties of species that 
lack mimetic features in regions not inhabited by die model. 
Would God have created some mimics from the dust of the earth 
but allowed others to reach their precision by limited natural 
selection within the confines of a created type? Is it not more 
reasonable to propose that mimicking species began as varieties 
and then evolved further to become separate entities? And much 
worse for creationists: Bates had shown that some mimicking spe- 
cies resemble models (hat are only varieties. Would God have 
created a mimic from scratch to resemble another form that 
evolved (in strictly limited fashion) to its current state? God may 
work in strange ways, his wonders to perform — but would he 
really so tax our credulity? The historical explanation makes so 
much more sense. 

But if mimicry became a source of delight for Darwin, it also 
presented a serious problem. We may easily grasp the necessity 
for a historical account. We may understand how the system 
works once all its elements develop, but why does this process of 
mimicry ever begin? What starts it off, and what propels it for- 
ward? Why, in Darwin’s words, “to the perplexity of naturalists, 
has nature condescended to the tricks of the stage?” More spe- 
cifically: Any butterfly mimic, in the rich faunas of the Amazon 
valley, shares its space with many potential models. Why does a 
mimic converge upon one particular model? We can understand 
how natural selection might perfect a resemblance already well 
established, but what begins the process along one of many po- 
tential pathways — especially since we can scarcely imagine that a 
1 or 2 percent resemblance to a model provides much, if anv, 

herb; goes nothing | 297 

advantage for a mimic. This old dilemma in evolutionary theory 
even has a name in the jargon of my profession — the problem of 
the incipient stages of useful structures.” Darwin had a good 
answer for mimicry, and I will return to it after a long story about 
frogs— the central subject of this essay and another illustration of 
the same principle that Darwin established to resolve the di- 
lemma of incipient stages. 

We remember Darwin’s Beagle voyage primarily for the big and 
spectacular animals that he discovered or studied: the fossil Toxo- 
d° n an d the giant Galapagos tortoises. But many small creatures, 
though less celebrated, brought enormous scientific reward — 
among them a Chilean frog appropriately named Rhinoderma dar- 
wini. Most frogs lay their eggs in water and then allow the 
tadpoles to make their own way, but many species have evolved 
v arious styles of parental care, and the range of these adaptations 
extols nature’s unity in diversity. 

In R. darwini, males ingest the fertilized eggs and brood them 
in die large throat pouches usually reserved for an earlier act of 
courtship— the incessant croaking that defines territory and at- 
tracts females. Up to fifteen young may fill the pouch, puffing out 
all along the father s ventral (lower) surface and compressing the 
vital organs above. G. B. Howes ended his classic account of this 
curious life-style (Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London , 
1888) with a charming anthropomorphism. Previous students of 
Rhinoderma , he noted, had supposed that the male does not feed 
while carrying his young. But Howes dissected a brooding male 
and found its stomach full of beetles and flies and its large intes- 
tine clogged with “excreta like that of a normal individual.” He 
concluded, with an almost palpable sigh of relief, “that this ex- 
traordinary paternal instinct does not lead up to that self-abnega- 
tion” postulated by previous authors. 

But nature consistently frustrates our attempts to read intrinsic 
solicitude into her ways. In November 1973, two Australian sci- 
entists discovered a form of parental care that must preclude 
feeding, for these frogs brood their young in their stomachs and 
then give birth through their mouths. And we can scarcely imag- 
ine that a single organ acts as a nurturing uterus and a site of acid 
digestion at the same time. 

Rheobatrachus silus, a small aquatic frog living under stones or in 
rock pools of shallow streams and rills in a small area of southeast 


Queensland, was first discovered and described in 1973. Later 
that year, C. J. Corben and G. J. Ingram of Brisbane attempted to 
transfer a specimen from one aquarium to another. To their as- 
tonishment, it “rose to the surface of the water and, after com- 
pression of the lateral body muscles, propulsively ejected from 
the mouth six living tadpoles” (from the original description 
published by Corben, Ingram, and M. J. Tyler in 1974). They 
initially assumed, from their knowledge of Rhinoderma, that their 
brooder was a male rearing young in its throat pouch. Eighteen 
days later, they found a young frog swimming beside its parent; 
two days later, a further pair emerged unobserved in the night. At 
that point, they decided (as the euphemism goes) to “sacrifice” 
their golden goose. But the parent, when grasped, “ejected by 
propulsive vomiting eight juveniles in the space of no more than 
two seconds. Over the next few minutes a further five juveniles 
were ejected.” They then dissected the parent and received their 
biggest surprise. The frog had no vocal sac. It was a female with 
“a very large, thin-walled, dilated stomach” — the obvious home 
of the next generation. 

Natural birth had not yet been observed in Rheobatrachus. All 
young had either emerged unobserved or been vomited forth as a 
violent reaction after handling. The first young had greeted the 
outside world prematurely as tadpoles (since development 
clearly proceeds all the way to froghood in the mother’s stomach, 
as later births demonstrated). 

Art then frustrated nature, and a second observation also failed 
to resolve the mode of natural birth. Injanuary 1978, a pregnant 
female was shipped express airfreight from Brisbane to Adelaide 
for observation. But the poor frog was — yes, you guessed it — 
“delayed” by an industrial dispute. The mother, still hanging on, 
eventually arrived surrounded by twenty-one dead young; a 
twenty-second frog remained in her stomach upon dissection. 
Finally, in 1979, K. R. McDonald and D. B. Carter successfully 
transported two pregnant females to Adelaide — and the great 
event was finally recorded. The first female, carefully set up for 
photography, frustrated all hopes by vomiting six juveniles “at 
great speed, flying upwards . . . for approximately one meter ... a 
substantial distance relative to the body size of the female.” But 
the second mother obliged. Of her twenty-six offspring, two ap- 


peared gently and, apparently, voluntarily. The mother “partially 
emerged from the water, shook her head, opened her mouth, and 
two babies actively struggled out.” The photo of a fully formed 
baby frog, resting on its parent’s tongue before birth, has already 
become a classic of natural history. This second female, about 
two inches long, weighed 1 1.62 grams after birth. Her twenty-six 
children weighed 7.66 grams, or 66 percent of her weight without 
them. An admirable effort indeed! 

Rheobatrachus inspired great excitement among Australian sci- 
entists, and research groups in Adelaide and Brisbane have been 
studying this frog intensively, with all work admirably summa- 
rized and discussed in a volume edited by M. (. Tyler (1983). 
Rarely has such extensive and coordinated information been pre- 
sented on a natural oddity, and we are grateful to these Aus- 
tralian scientists for bringing together their work in such a useful 

This volume also presents enough detail (usually lacking in 
technical publications) to give nonscientists a feel for the actual 
procedures of research, warts and all (an appropriate metaphor 
for the subject). Glen Ingram’s article on natural history, for ex- 
ample, enumerates all the day-to-day dilemmas that technical pa- 
pers rarely mention: slippery bodies that elude capture; simple 
difficulties in seeing a small, shy frog that lives in inaccessible 
places (Ingram learned to identify Rheobatrachus by characteristic 
ripples made by its jump into water); rain, fog, and dampness; 
and regeneration that frustrates identification (ecologists must 
recognize individual animals in order to monitor size and move- 
ment of populations by mark-recapture techniques; amphibians 
and reptiles are traditionally marked by distinctive patterns of toe 
clipping, a painless and unobtrusive procedure, but Rheobatrachus 
frustrates tradition by regenerating its clipped toes, and Ingram 
could not reidentify his original captures). To this, we must add 
the usually unacknowledged bane of all natural history: bore- 
dom. You don’t see your animals most of the time; so you wait 
and wait and wait (not always pleasant on the boggy banks of a 
stream in rainy season). Somehow, though, such plagues seem 
appropriate enough, given the subject. Frogs, after all, stand 
among the ten Mosaic originals: “I will smite all thy borders with 
frogs: And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which 


shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedcham- 
bers, and upon thy bed . . . and into thine ovens, and into thy 
kneading troughs” (Exod. 8:2-3). 

The biblical author of Exodus was, unfortunately, not describ- 
ing Rheobatrachus , a rare animal indeed. Not a single Rheobatrachus 
silus has been seen in its natural habitat since 1981. A series of dry 
summers and late rains has restricted the range of this aquatic 
frog — and five years of no sitings must raise fears about extinc- 
tion. Fortunately, a second species, named R. vitellinus, was dis- 
covered in January 1984, living in shallow sections of fast-flowing 
streams, about 500 miles north of the range of R. silus. This 
slightly larger version (up to three inches in length) also broods 
in its stomach; twenty-two baby frogs inhabited a pregnant fe- 

When discussed as a disembodied oddity (the problem with 
traditional writing in natural history), Rheobatrachus may pique 
our interest but not our intellect. Placed into a proper context 
among other objects of nature’s diversity — the “comparative ap- 
proach” so characteristic of evolutionary biology — gastric brood- 
ing in Rheobatrachus embodies a message of great theoretical 
interest. Rheobatrachus, in one sense, stands alone. No other ver- 
tebrate swallows its own fertilized eggs, converts its stomach into 
a brood pouch, and gives birth through its mouth. But in another 
sense, Rheobatrachus represents just one solution to a common 
problem among frogs. 

In his review of parental care, R. W. McDiarmid argues that 
frogs display “the greatest array of reproductive modes found in 
any vertebrates” (see his article in G. M. Burghardt and M. Bek- 
off, 1978). Much inconclusive speculation has been devoted to 
reasons for the frequent and independent evolution of brooding 
(and other forms of parental care) in frogs — a profound depar- 
ture, after all, from the usual amphibian habit of laying eggs in 
water and permitting the young to pass their early lives as unat- 
tended aquatic tadpoles. Several authors have suggested the fol- 
lowing common denominator: In many habitats, and for a variety 
of reasons, life as a free-swimming tadpole may become suffi- 
ciently uninviting to impose strong evolutionary pressure for 
bypassing this stage and undergoing “direct development” from 
egg to completed frog. Brooding is an excellent strategy for di- 


rect development — since tadpole life may be spent in a brood 
pouch, and the bad old world need not be faced directly before 

In any case, brooding has evolved often in frogs, and in an 
astonishing variety of modes. As a minimal encumbrance and 
modification, some frogs simply attach eggs to their exteriors. 
Males of the midwife toad Alytes obstetricans wrap strings of eggs 
about their legs and carry them in tow. 

At the other extreme of modification, some frogs have evolved 
special brood pouches in unconventional places. The female Gas- 
trotheca nobambae, an Ecuadorean frog from Andean valleys, de- 
velops a pouch on her back, with an opening near the rear and an 
internal extension nearly to her head. The male places fertilized 
eggs in her pouch, where they develop under the skin of her back 
for five to six weeks before emerging as late-stage tadpoles. 

In another Australian frog, Assa darlingtoni, males develop 
pouches on their undersides, opening near their hind legs but 
extending forward to the front legs (see article by G. J. Ingram, 
M. Anstis, and C. J. Corben, 1975). Females lay their eggs among 
leaves. When they hatch, the male places himself in the middle of 
the mass and either coats himself with jelly from the spawn or, 
perhaps, secretes a slippery substance himself. The emerging 
tadpoles then perform a unique act of acrobatics among amphibi- 
ans: they move in an ungainly fashion by bending their bodies, 
head toward tail, and then springing sideways and forward. In 
this inefficient manner, they migrate over the slippery body of 
their father and enter the brood pouch under their own steam. (I 
am almost tempted to say, given the Australian venue, that these 
creatures have been emboldened to perform in such unfroglike 
ways by watching too many surrounding marsupials, for the kan- 
garoo’s undeveloped, almost larval joey also must endure a slow 
and tortuous crawl to the parental pouch!) 

In a kind of intermediate mode, some frogs brood their young 
internally but use structures already available for other purposes. 
I have already discussed Rhinoderma, the vocal-pouch brooder of 
Chile. Evolution seizes its opportunities. The male vocal pouch is 
roomy and available; in a context of strong pressure for brood- 
ing, some lineage will eventually overcome the behavioral obsta- 
cles and grasp this ready possibility. The eggs of R. darwini 


develop for twenty-three days before the tadpoles hatch. For the 
first twenty days, tadpoles grow within eggs exposed to the exter- 
nal environment. But tadpoles then begin to move, and this be- 
havior apparently triggers a response from the male parent. He 
then takes the advanced eggs into his vocal pouch. They hatch 
there three days later and remain for fifty-two days until the end 
of metamorphosis, when the young emerge through their father’s 
mouth as perfectly formed little froglets. In the related species R. 
rufum, muscular activity begins after eight days within the egg, 
and males keep the tadpoles in their vocal sacs for much shorter 
periods, finally expelling them, still in the tadpole stage, into 
water (see article by K. Busse, 1970). 

In this context, Rheobatrachus is less an oddity than a fulfill- 
ment. Stomachs provide the only other large internal pouch with 
an egress of sufficient size. Some lineage of frogs was bound to 
exploit this possibility. But stomachs present a special problem 
not faced by vocal sacs or novel pouches of special construction — 
and we now encounter the key dilemma that will bring us back to 
mimicry in butterflies and the evolutionary problem of incipient 
stages. Stomachs are already doing something else — and that 
something is profoundly inimical to the care and protection of 
fragile young. Stomachs secrete acid and digest food — and eggs 
and tadpoles are, as they say down under, mighty good tucker. 

In short, to turn a stomach into a brood pouch, something 
must turn off the secretion of hydrochloric acid and suppress the 
passage of eggs into the intestine. At a minimum, the brooding 
mother cannot eat during the weeks that she carries young in her 
stomach. This inhibition may arise automatically and present no 
special problem. Stomachs contain “stretch receptors” that tell 
an organism when to stop eating by imposing a feeling of satiety 
as the mechanical consequence of a full stomach. A batch of swal- 
lowed eggs will surely set off this reaction and suppress further 

But this fact scarcely solves our problem — for why doesn’t the 
mother simply secrete her usual acid, digest the eggs, and relieve 
her feeling of satiety? What turns off the secretion of hydrochlo- 
ric acid and the passage of eggs into the intestine? 

Tyler and his colleagues immediately realized, when they dis- 
covered gastric brooding in Rheobatrachus, that suppression of 
stomach function formed the crux of their problem. “Clearly,” 



they wrote, “the intact amphibian stomach is likely to be an alien 
environment for brooding.” They began by studying the changes 
induced by brooding in the architecture of the stomach. They 
found that the secretory mucosa (the lining that produces acid) 
regresses while the musculature strengthens, thus converting the 
stomach into a strong and chemically inert pouch. Moreover, 
these changes are not “preparatory” — that is, they do not occur 
before a female swallows her eggs. Probably, then, something in 
the eggs or tadpoles themselves acts to suppress their own de- 
struction and make a congenial place of their new home. The 
Australian researchers then set out to find the substance that 
suppresses acid secretion in the stomach — and they have appar- 
ently succeeded. 

P. O’Brien and D. Shearman, in a series of ingenious experi- 
ments, concentrated water that had been in contact with develop- 
ing Rheobatrachus embryos to test for a chemical substance that 
might suppress stomach function in the mothers. They dissected 
out the gastric mucosa (secreting surface) of the toad Bufo marinus 
( Rheobatrachus itself is too rare to sacrifice so many adult females 
for such an experiment) and kept it alive in vitro. They showed 
that this isolated mucosa can function normally to secrete stom- 
ach acids and that well-known chemical inhibitors will suppress 
the secretion. They then demonstrated that water in contact with 
Rheobatrachus tadpoles suppresses the mucosa, while water in 
contact with tadpoles of other species has no effect. Finally, they 
succeeded in isolating a chemical suppressor from the water — 
prostaglandin E 2 . (The prostaglandins are hormonelike sub- 
stances, named for their first discovery as secretions of the 
human prostate gland — though they form throughout the body 
and serve many functions.) 

Thus, we may finally return to mimicry and the problem of 
incipient stages. I trust that some readers have been bothered by 
an apparent dilemma of illogic and reversed causality. The eggs 
of Rheobatrachus must contain the prostaglandin that suppresses 
secretion of gastric acid and allows the stomach to serve as an 
inert brood pouch. It’s nice to know that eggs contain a substance 
for their own protection in a hostile environment. But in a world 
of history — not of created perfection — how can such a system 
arise? The ancestors of Rheobatrachus must have been conven- 
tional frogs, laying eggs for external development. At some 


point, a female Rheobatrachus must have swallowed its fertilized 
eggs (presumably taking them for food, not with the foresight of 
evolutionary innovation) — and the fortuitous presence of prosta- 
glandin suppressed digestion and permitted the eggs to develop 
in their mother’s stomach. 

The key word is fortuitous. One cannot seriously believe that 
ancestral eggs actively evolved prostaglandin because they knew 
that, millions of years in the future, a mother would swallow them 
and they would then need some inhibitor of gastric secretion. 
The eggs must have contained prostaglandin for another reason 
or for no particular reason at all (perhaps just as a metabolic 
by-product of development). Prostaglandin provided a lucky 
break with respect to the later evolution of gastric brooding — a 
historical precondition fortuitously available at the right mo- 
ment, a sine qua non evolved for other reasons and pressed into 
service to initiate a new evolutionary direction. 

Darwin proposed the same explanation for the initiation of 
mimicry — as a general solution to the old problem of incipient 
stages. Mimicry works splendidly as a completed system, but what 
gets the process started along one potential pathway among 
many? Darwin argued that a mimicking butterfly must begin with 
a slight and fortuitous resemblance to its model. Without this leg 
up for initiation, the process of improvement to mimetic perfec- 
tion cannot begin. But once an accidental, initial resemblance 
provides some slight edge, natural selection can improve the fit 
from imperfect beginnings. 

Thus, Darwin noted with pleasure Bates’s demonstration that 
mimicry always arose among butterflies more prone to vary than 
others that never evolve mimetic forms. Phis tendency to vary 
must be the precondition that establishes fortuitous initial resem- 
blance to models in some cases. “It is necessary to suppose,” 
Darwin wrote, that ancestral mimics “accidently resembled a 
member of another and protected group in a sufficient degree to 
afford some slight protection, this having given the basis for the 
subsequent acquisition of the most perfect resemblance.” Ances- 
tral mimics happened to resemble a model in some slight man- 
ner — and the evolutionary process could begin. The eggs of 
Rheobatrachus happened to contain a prostaglandin that inhibited 
gastric secretion — and their mother’s stomach became a tempo- 
rary home, not an engine of destruction. 


New evolutionary directions must have such quirky beginnings 
based on the fortuitous presence of structures and possibilities 
evolved for other reasons. After all, in nature, as in human inven- 
tion, one cannot prepare actively for the utterly unexpected. Gas- 
tric brooding must be an either-or, a quantum jump in 
evolutionary potential. As Tyler argues, what intermediary stage 
can one imagine? Many fishes (but no frogs) brood young in their 
mouths — while only males possess throat pouches, but only fe- 
male Rheobatrachus broods in its stomach. Eggs can’t develop 
halfway down the esophagus. 

We glimpse in the story of Rheobatrachus a model for the intro- 
duction of creativity and new directions in evolution (not just a 
tale of growing bigger or smaller, fiercer or milder, by the every- 
day action of natural selection). Such new directions, as Darwin 
argued in resolving the problem of incipient stages, must be initi- 
ated by fortuitous prerequisites, thus imparting a quirky and un- 
predictable character to the history of life. These new directions 
may involve minimal changes at first — since the fortuitous 
prerequisites are already present, though not so utilized, in 
ancestors. A female Rheobatrachus swallowed its fertilized eggs, 
and a striking new behavior and mode of brooding arose at once 
by virtue of a chemical fortuitously present in eggs, and by the 
automatic action of stretch receptors in the stomach. Such mini- 
mal changes are pregnant with possibilities. Most probably lead 
nowhere beyond a few oddballs — as with Rheobatrachus, probably 
already well on its way to extinction. 

But a few quirky new directions may become seeds of major 
innovations and floods of diversity in life’s history. The first pro- 
toamphibian that crawled out of its pond has long been a favorite 
source of evolutionary cartoon humor. The captions are end- 
less — from “see ya later as alligator” to “because the weather’s 
better out here.” But my favorite reads “here goes nothing.” It 
doesn’t happen often, but when nothing becomes something, the 
inherent power of evolution, normally an exquisitely conserva- 
tive force, can break forth. Or, as Reginald Bunthorne proclaims 
in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (which evolution must have 
above all else): “Nature for restraint too mighty far, has burst the 
bonds of art — and here we are.” 



It is my sad duty to report a change of state, between writing and 
republishing this essay, that has made its title eerily prophetic. 
Rheobatrachus situs, the stomach-brooding frog and star of this 
essay, has apparently become extinct. This species was discov- 
ered in 1973, living in fair abundance in a restricted region of 
southeast Queensland, Australia. In early 1990, the National Re- 
search Council (of the United States) convened a conference to 
discuss “unexplained losses of amphibian populations around 
the world” (as reported in Science News, MarchS, 1990). MichaelJ. 
1 yler, member of the team that discovered stomach brooding in 
Rheobatrachus, reported that 100 specimens could easily be ob- 
served per night when the population maintained fair abundance 
during the mid-1970s. Naturalists have not found a single indi- 
vidual since 1981, and must now conclude that the species is 
extinct (for several years they hoped that they were merely ob- 
serving a sharp and perhaps cyclical reduction in numbers). Even 
more sadly, this loss forms part of a disturbing and unexplained 
pattern in amphibian populations throughout the world. In Aus- 
tralia alone, 20 of 194 frog species have suffered serious local 
drops in population size during the past decade, and at least one 
other species has become extinct. 



In a Jumbled Drawer 

as my son grows, I have monitored the changing 
fashions in kiddie culture for words expressing deep admira- 
tion — what I called “cool” in my day, and my father designated 
“swell.” The half-life seems to be about six months, as “excel- 
lent” (with curious lingering emphasis on the first syllable) gave 
way to “bad” (extended, like a sheep bleat, long enough to turn 
into its opposite), to “wicked,” to “rad” (short for radical). The 
latest incumbent — “awesome” — possesses more staying power, 
and has been reigning for at least two years. My only objection, 
from the fuddy-duddy’s corner, lies in kiddie criteria for discern- 
ment. Ethan’s buddies require such a tiny extension beyond the 
ordinary to proclaim something “awesome” — just a little bit big- 
ger, brighter, and, especially, louder will do. This or that is pro- 
claimed awesome every second sentence — and we have a lost a 
wonderful English word. 

Now let me tell you about awesome — the real thing, when 
adults still held possession of the concept. I collected fossils all 
my youthful life, or at least on those rare occasions of departure 
from the asphalt of New York City. I had amassed, by the end of 
college, five cartonsful, all ordered and labeled — and I was pretty 
proud of both quantity and quality. Then I got my present job as 
curator of fossil invertebrates at Harvard’s Museum of Compara- 
tive Zoology. I came to Cambridge with my five cartons and dis- 
covered that my new stewardship extended to 15,000 drawers of 
fossils, including some of the world’s finest and oldest specimens, 
brought from Europe by Louis Agassiz more than a century ago. I 
put the cartons in a back corner of my office twenty years ago this 



month. I have never opened them. Me with my five cartons facing 
those 15,000 drawers — that is awe. 

But when awe subsides, ecstasy creeps in. For I had 15,000 
drawers to open, each harboring a potential discovery or insight. 
Raise to the ;;th power any simile you ever heard for “as happy 
as” — a boy in a candy store, a pig in . . . well, you know what. I 
spent two weeks pulling out every last drawer, and I found a 
cornucopia of disparate objects that have fueled my aesthetic and 
intellectual pleasure ever since. 

The fossils were sublime, but I found as much fascination in 
the odd paraphernalia of culture that, for various reasons, end up 
in museum drawers. Late eighteenth century apothecary boxes, 
thread cases from the mills of Lawrence, Victorian cigar boxes of 
gaudy Cuban design — all the better to house fossils. Tickets to 
Lowell Institute lecture series by Gray, Agassiz, and Lyell, invita- 
tions to a ball honoring Napoleon III, merchants’ calling cards 
from Victorian Cincinnati — all the better (on their blank ob- 
verses) to label fossils. Pages from the Sears catalogue for 1903, 
snippets of nineteenth-century newspapers — all the better to 
wrap fossils. The most interesting news item, a headline from a 
Cincinnati paper for July 11, 1881, read “Garfield's Grit” and 
announced that the president, though severely wounded in the 
recent assassination attempt, “is now on the sunny side of life 
again,” and would almost surely recover — the flip side to a happy 
Harry Truman holding that 1948 Chicago Tribune headline an- 
nouncing Dewey’s victory. 

F’or my most interesting discovery, I opened a drawer late one 
night and found only a jumble of specimens inside. Someone had 
obviously overturned the drawer and dumped the contents. But 
the thick layer of dust identified the disordered pile as a very old 
jumble. Inside, I found the following note: 

This incident was the result of the carelessness of the Jani- 
tor Eli Grant who managed to overturn about half a dozen 
drawers of specimens by undertaking to move certain trays 
which he was not authorized to touch. The accident hap- 
pened during my absence but I judge that it arose from an 
excess of zeal rather than from any recklessness. I have 
deemed it best to leave the specimens exactly as I found 


them awaiting an opportunity to have them arranged by Mr. 

I developed an immediate dislike for this pusillanimous assist- 
ant — fingering the janitor, distancing himself even further from 
responsibility by assuring the boss that he hadn’t been there at 

Ia ' 

XkjUUji it/vlir (ATM li~t /j) \ J_ 

ft'-s, WlC, i-vviu 

0~ trvy*^ ^ ; 

. cC £ -C.-i's.— 

' ; v Tl ‘ 


T jf - * 

/■cW cpC 

MLX- /l 7 

l-v-vt iX£ 

UJ- JA-X.1A i/f £bns- o S' 

*.2. ^ s, 


QxlJ'm- /- ^n-itv si vxx-^-S / 

Bp|s ‘ f Jut-t' L, i{~ yux:iu.>r 

^ ^^ 7 c*-<X-r 

^ • V ^' > V 3^C^C- ^ ^ hj 


The guilty note from N.S. Shaler, left in a drawer to forestall Agassiz’s 


the time, then feeling a bit guilty for placing Mr. Grant’s job in 
jeopardy and praising him for zeal through the back door. I then 
looked at the date and signature — Cambridge, April 26, 1869, 
N. S. Shaler. 

David lamented over Saul: “How are the mighty fallen.” But 
one might look the other way in ontogeny and observe, “How 
meek are the mighty when young and subservient.” Nathaniel 
Southgate Shaler became one of the greatest and most popular 
teachers in the history of Harvard University. He was a giant 
among late nineteenth century American naturalists. But in 1 869, 
Shaler was just a junior professor without tenure, and his supe- 
rior was the most powerful and imperious biologist in America — 
none other than Louis Agassiz himself. Obviously, Shaler had 
written that note in mortal fear of Agassiz’s celebrated wrath. 
Equally obviously, Agassiz had never found out — for Shaler be- 
came professor of paleontology later that year, w hile a century of 
undisturbed dust still lies atop the jumbled specimens. 

N. S. Shaler reaped the rewards of his unflinching loyalty to 
Agassiz. The path of devotion was not smooth. Agassiz was a 
transplanted European with an Old World sense of professorial 
authority. He told students what they would study, awarded de- 
grees by oral examination and direct assessment of competence, 
and insisted upon personal approval for any publication based on 
material at his museum. He never failed in encouragement, 
warmth, and enthusiasm — and he was a beloved teacher. But he 
never relinquished one iota of authority. These attitudes might 
only have yielded a tightly run ship in times of intellectual quies- 
cence, but Agassiz was captain on the most troubled waters of 
biological history. Agassiz opened his museum in 1859, the same 
year that Darwin published The Origin of Species. He gathered 
around himself the most promising, and therefore most indepen- 
dently minded, group of young zoologists in America, Shaler in- 
cluded. Inevitably, evolution became the chief subject of 
discussion. With equal inevitability, students flocked eagerly to 
this beacon of intellectual excitement and became enthusiastic 
converts. But Agassiz had built both a career and a coherent phi- 
losophy upon the creationist premise that species are ideas in 
God’s mind, made incarnate by his hand in a world of material 
objects. Sooner shall a camel pass through the eye of a needle 


than the old lion and young wolf cubs shall dwell in harmony 
amidst such disagreement. 

And so, inevitably once more, Agassiz’s students revolted — 
against both bis overweening authority and his old-fashioned 
ideas. In 1863, they formed what they called, in half-jest, a com- 
mittee for the protection of American students from foreign- 
born professors. Agassiz, however, held all the cards in a 
hierarchical world, and he booted tbe rebels out, much to the 
benefit of American science, as they formed departments and 
centers at other great universities. Agassiz then staffed his mu- 
seum with older and uncontroversial professionals, bringing 
peace and mediocrity once again to Harvard. 

Of his truly excellent students, only Shaler remained loyal. 
And Shaler reaped his earthly reward. He received his bachelor 
of science in geology, summa cum laude, in July 1862. After a spell 
of service in the Civil War, fighting for the Union from his native 
Kentucky, Shaler returned to Harvard in 1864. Agassiz, describ- 
ing Shaler as “the one of my American students whom I love the 
best,” appointed him assistant in paleontology at the Museum of 
Comparative Zoology. In 1869, soon after he penned the guilty 
note that would lie unread for exactly 100 years (I found it in 
1969), Shaler received his lifetime appointment as professor of 
geology, succeeding Agassiz (who continued to lecture in zool- 
ogy until he died in 1873). There Shaler remained until his death 
in 1906, writing numerous treatises on everything from the geol- 
ogy of Martha’s Vineyard to the nature of morality and immortal- 
ity. He also became, by far, Harvard’s most popular professor. 
His classes overflowed, and his students poured forth praise for 
his enthusiasm, his articulateness, and the comfort, optimism, 
and basic conventionality of his words, spoken to the elite at the 
height of America’s gilded age. On the day of his funeral, flags in 
city buildings and student fraternities flew at half-mast, and many 
shops closed. Thirty years later, at the Harvard tercentenary of 
1936, Shaler was named twelfth among the fifty people most im- 
portant to the history of Harvard. To this day, his bust rests, with 
only fourteen others, including Franklin’s, Longfellow’s, and, of 
course, Agassiz’s, in the faculty room of Bullfinch’s University 
Hall (and you can take my word for it; I made a special field trip 
over there and counted). 


Shaler s loyalty to Agassiz, and to comfortable convention in 
general, held as strongly in ideology as in practice. Shaler wrote 
these words of condolence to Agassiz’s widow, Elizabeth Cary, 
founder of Radcliffe College, when Louis died in 1873: “He 
never was a greater teacher than now. He never was more truly at 
his chosen work. . . . While he lived I always felt myself a boy 
beside him." (See David N. Livingstone, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler 
and the Culture of American Science , University of Alabama Press, 
1987, for the source of this quotation and an excellent account of 
Shaler’s intellectual life.) 

I don't think that Shaler, in his eulogy to Elizabeth, either erred 
or exaggerated in his chosen metaphor of subservience to Agas- 
siz’s vision. While Shaler remained subordinate, he followed 
Agassiz’s intellectual lead, often with the epigone’s habit of ex- 
aggerating his master's voice. Shaler’s very first publication 
provides an interesting example (“Lateral Symmetry in Brachi- 
opoda,” 1861). Here Shaler supports both Agassiz’s creationism 
and his zoological classification. Brachiopods, once a dominant 
group in the fossil record of marine invertebrates, are now a 
minor component of oceanic faunas. With their bivalved shells, 
they look superficially like clams, but their soft anatomy is en- 
tirely distinct, and they are now classified as a separate phylum. 
But Georges Cuvier, Agassiz’s great mentor, had placed brachio- 
pods with clams and snails in his phylum Mollusca — and Agassiz, 
whose loyalty to Cuvier matched any devotion of Shaler’s, wished 
both to uphold Cuvier’s classification and to use his concept of 
Mollusca as an argument against Darwin. 

Shaler obliged in his first public performance. He affirmed 
Cuvier and Agassiz’s inclusion of brachiopods in the Mollusca by 
claiming a bilateral symmetry of soft parts similar enough to the 
symmetry of such “standard" forms as clams and squids to justify 
a conclusion of common plan in design. But he then took a swipe 
at Darwin s reason for including separate groups in a single phy- 
lum by arguing that no evolutionary transition could possibly link 
adult brachiopod and clam. (Shaler was quite right about this, but 
not for his stated reason. You cannot transform a brachiopod 
into a clam, but then nature never did because brachiopods aren’t 
mollusks and the two groups are entirely separate — contrary to 
Shaler s first conclusion.) I he planes of bilateral symmetry are 
different for the two groups, Shaler argued correctly, and no 


transition could occur because any smooth intermediate would 
have to pass through a nonbilateral stage entirely inconsistent 
with molluscan design. Shaler wrote: 

Such a transition would require a series of forms, each of 
which must present a negation of that very principle of bilat- 
eral symmetry which we have found of so much importance. 
And must we not, therefore, conclude that the series which 
united these two orders is a series of thought, which is itself 
connected, though manifested by two structures which have 
no genetic relations. 

Now if you’re holding a nineteenth-century scorecard, and 
therefore know the players, only one man could be lurking be- 
hind this statement. Only one real Flatonist of this ilk operated in 
America, only one leading biologist still willing to designate spe- 
cies as thoughts of a Creator, and taxonomic relationships as the 
interconnections within His mind — Louis Agassiz. Shaler, with 
the true zeal of the acolyte, even out-Agassized Agassiz in refer- 
ring to the central character of bilateral symmetry as “the funda- 
mental thought of the type” and then designating animal 
taxonomy as “a study of personified thought.” Even Agassiz was 
not so explicit in specifying the attributes of his God. 

When the winds of inevitability blew strongly enough, and 
when Shaler’s own position became secure in the late 1860s, he 
finally embraced evolution, but ever so gently, and in a manner 
that would cause minimal offense to Agassiz and to any Brahmin 
member of the old Boston order. After Agassiz’s death, Shaler 
continued to espouse a version of evolution with maximal loyalty 
to Agassiz’s larger vision of natural harmony, and marked aver- 
sion to all Darwinian ideas of chanciness, contingency, unpredict- 
ability, opportunism, and quirkiness. He led the American 
Neo-Lamarckian school — a powerful group of anti-Darwinian 
evolutionists who held out for order, purpose, and progress in 
nature through the principle of inheritance for features acquired 
by the effort of organisms. Progress in mentality might be pre- 
dictably ordained if some organisms strove for improvement dur- 
ing their lives and passed their achievements to their offspring. 
No waiting for the Darwinian chanciness of favorable environ- 
ments and fortuitous variations. 


Shaler’s loyalty to Agassiz persisted right through this funda- 
mental change from creationism to evolution. For example, 
though he could scarcely deny the common origin of all humans 
in the light of evolutionary theory, Shaler still advocated Agas- 
siz’s distinctive view (representing the “polygenist” school of 
pre-Darwinian anthropology) that human races are separate spe- 
cies, properly and necessarily kept apart both on public convey- 
ances and in bedrooms. Shaler argued for an evolutionary 
separation of races so long ago that accumulated differences had 
become, for all practical purposes, permanent. 

Practical purposes, in the genteel racism of patrician Boston, 
abetted by a slaveholding Kentucky ancestry, meant “using biol- 
ogy as an accomplice” (in Condorcet’s words) to advocate a “na- 
tivist” social policy (where “natives” are not the truly indigenous 
American Indians, but the earliest immigrants from Protestant 
western and northern Europe). Shaler reserved his lowest opin- 
ion for black Americans, but invested his social energies in the 
Immigration Restriction League and its attempts to prevent dilu- 
tion of American whites (read WASPs) by the great Catholic and 
Jewish unwashed of southern and eastern Europe. 

One can hardly fathom the psychological and sociological com- 
plexities of racism, but the forced intellectual rationales are al- 
ways intriguing and more accessible. Shaler’s own defense 
merged his two chief interests in geography and zoology. He 
argued that we live in a world of sensible and optimal pattern, 
devoid of quirk or caprice. People differ because they have 
adapted by Lamarckian means to their local environments; our 
capacities are a map of our original homes — and we really 
shouldn’t live elsewhere (hence the biological rectitude of re- 
stricting immigration). The languid tropics cannot inspire ge- 
nius, and you cannot contemplate the Pythagorean absolute 
while trying to keep body and soul together in an igloo. Hence 
the tough, but tractable, lands of northern Europe yielded the 
best of humanity. Shaler wrote: 

Our continents and seas, cannot be considered as physi- 
cal accidents in which, and on which, organic beings 
have found an ever-perilous resting place, but as great en- 
gines operating in a determined way to secure the advance 
of life. 


Shaler then applied this cardinal belief in overarching order 
(against the Darwinian specter of unpredictable contingency) to 
the largest question of all — the meaning of human life as a proof 
of God’s existence and benevolence. In so doing, he completed 
the evolutionary version of Agassiz’s dearest principle — the infu- 
sion of sensible, progressive, divine order into the cosmos, with 
the elevation of “man” (and I think he really meant only half of 
us) to the pinnacle of God’s intent. Shaler could not deny his 
generation’s proof of evolution, and had departed from his 
master in this conviction, but he had been faithful in constructing 
a vision of evolution so mild that it left all cosmic comfort intact, 
thereby affirming the deepest principle of Agassiz’s natural theol- 

Shaler rooted his argument in a simple claim about probability. 
(Shaler often repeated this line of reasoning. My quotations come 
from his last and most widely read book — The Individual: A Study of 
Life and Death, 1901.) Human life is the end result of an evolution- 
ary sequence stretching back into the immensity of time and in- 
cluding thousands of steps, each necessary as a link in the rising 

The possibility of man’s development has rested on the suc- 
cessive institution of species in linked order. ... If, in this 
succession of tens of thousands of species, living through a 
series of millions of years, any of these links of the human 
chain had been broken; if any one of the species had failed 
to give birth to its successor, the chance of the development 
of man would have been lost. 

Human evolution, Shaler holds, would have been “unattaina- 
ble without the guidance of a controlling power intent on the 
end.” If one sequence alone could have engendered us, and if the 
world be ruled by Darwinian caprice and contingency, our ap- 
pearance would have been “essentially impossible.” For surely, 
one link would have failed, one step in ten thousand been 
aborted, thus ending forever the ascent toward consciousness. 
Only divine watchfulness and intent could have produced the 
human mind (not a direct finger in the pot, perhaps, but at least 
an intelligent construction of nature’s laws with a desired end in 


The facts connected with the organic approach to man af- 
ford what is perhaps the strongest argument, or at least the 
most condensed, in favor of the opinion that there is an 
intelligent principle in control of the universe. 

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler was one of the most influential 
American intellectuals of his time. Today, he is unknown. I doubt 
that one in a hundred readers of this essay (geologists and Har- 
vardians excepted) has ever heard of him. His biography rates 
thirteen lines in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, more than half de- 
voted to a listing of book titles. Why has he faded, and what does 
his eclipse teach us about the power and permanence of human 
thought? We can, perhaps, best approach this question by con- 
sidering one of Shaler’s best friends, a man also influenced by 
Agassiz, but in a different way — William James. In their day, 
Shaler and James were peas in a pod of Harvard fame. Now 
Shaler is a memory for a few professionals, and James is one of 
America’s great gifts to the history of human thought. Why the 

William James also came under Agassiz’s spell during his stu- 
dent years. Agassiz decided to take six undergraduates along on 
his famous Thayer Expedition to Brazil (1866). They would help 
the trained scientists in collecting specimens and, in return, hear 
lectures from Agassiz on all aspects of natural history. William 
James, among the lucky six, certainly appreciated the value of 
Agassiz’s formidable intellect and pedagogical skill. He wrote to 
his father: “I am getting a pretty valuable training from the Prof, 
who pitches into me right and left and makes me [own] up to a 
great many of my imperfections. This morning he said I was ‘to- 
tally uneducated.’ ” 

But James maintained his critical perspective, while Shaler be- 
came an acolyte and then an epigone. James wrote: 

I have profited a great deal by hearing Agassiz talk, not so 
much by what he says, for never did a man utter a greater 
amount of humbug, but by learning the way of feeling of 
such a vast practical engine as he is. ... I delight to be with 
him. I only saw his defects at first, but now his wonderful 
qualities throw them quite in the background. ... I never 
saw a man work so hard. 


Was James “smarter” than Shaler? Does their difference in re- 
nown today reflect some basic disparity in amount of intellectual 
power? This is a senseless question for many reasons. Intelli- 
gence is too complex and multifaceted a thing to reduce to 
any single dimension. What can we say? Both men had certain 
brilliance, but they used their skills differently. Shaler was con- 
tent to follow Agassiz throughout his career, happy to employ his 
formidable intellect in constructing an elaborate rationale for 
contemporary preferences, never challenging the conservative 
assumptions of his class and culture. James questioned Agassiz 
from day one. James probed and wondered, reached and strug- 
gled every day of his life. Shaler built pretty buildings to house 
comfortable furniture. Intelligence or temperament; brains or 
guts? I don’t know. But I do know that oblivion was one man’s 
reward, enduring study and respect the other’s. 

As a dramatic illustration of the difference, consider James’s 
critique of Shaler’s “probability argument” for God’s benevo- 
lence from the fact of human evolution. James read Shaler’s The 
Individual , and wrote a very warm, though critical, letter to his 
dear friend. He praised “the gravity and dignity and peaceful- 
ness” of Shaler’s thoughts, but singled out the probability argu- 
ment for special rebuttal. 

)ames points out that the actual result of evolution is the only 
sample we have. We cannot compute a “probability” or even 
speak in such terms. Any result in a sample of one would appear 
equally miraculous when you consider the vast range of alterna- 
tive possibilities. But something had to happen. We may only talk 
of odds if we could return to the beginning, list a million possible 
outcomes, and then lay cold cash upon one possibility alone: 

We never know what ends may have been kept from realiza- 
tion, for the dead tell no tales. The surviving witness would 
in any case, and whatever he were, draw the conclusion that 
the universe was planned to make him and the like of him 
succeed, for it actually did so. But your argument that it is 
millions to one that it didn’t do so by chance doesn’t apply. 

It would apply if the witness had preexisted in an indepen- 
dent form and framed his scheme, and then the world had 
realized it. Such a coincidence would prove the world to 
have a kindred mind to his. But there has been no such 


coincidence. The world has come but once, the witness is 
there after the fact and simply approves. . . . Where only one 
fact is in question, there is no relation of “probability” at all. 
[James’s letter is reprinted, in full, in The Autobiography of 
Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, 1909.] 

Old, bad arguments never die (they don’t fade away either), 
particularly when they match our hopes. Shaler’s false probability 
argument is still a favorite among those who yearn to find a cos- 
mic rationale for human importance. And James’s retort remains 
as brilliant and as valid today as when he first presented the case 
to Shaler. We could save ourselves from a lot of current nonsense 
if every devotee of the anthropic principle (strong version), every 
fan of Teilhard’s noosphere, simply read and understood James’s 
letter to Shaler. 

James then continues with the ultimate Darwinian riposte to 
Shaler’s doctrine of cosmic hope and importance. Human intel- 
lect is a thing of beauty — truly awesome. But our evolution need 
not record any more than a Darwinian concatenation of im- 

I think, therefore, that the excellence we have reached and 
now approve may be due to no general design, but merely 
to a succession of the short designs we actually know of, 
taking advantage of opportunity, and adding themselves to- 
gether from point to point. 

Which brings us back to Mr. Eli Grant. (I do hope, compassion- 
ate reader, that you have been worrying about this poor man’s 
fate while I temporized in higher philosophical realms.) The 
young Shaler tried to cover his ass by exposing Grant’s. Obvi- 
ously, he succeeded, but what happened to the poor janitor, left 
to take the rap? 

This story has a happy ending, based on two sources of evi- 
dence: one inferential, the other direct. Since Agassiz never 
found out, never saw the note, and since Mr. Hartt, like Godot, 
never arrived, we may assume that Grant’s zealous accident 
eluded Agassiz’s watchful eye. More directly, I am delighted to 
report that I found (in yet another drawer) a record book for the 


Department of Invertebrate Paleontology in 1887. Mr. Eli Grant 
is still listed as janitor. 

Was Mr. Grant meant to survive because he did? Does his ten- 
ure on the job indicate the workings of a benevolent and control- 
ling mind? (Why not, for I can envisage 100 other scenarios, all 
plausible but less happy.) Or was Mr. Grant too small to fall 
under God’s direct providence? But if so, by w'hat hubris do we 
consider ourselves any bigger in a universe of such vastness? 
Such unprofitable, such unanswerable questions. Let us simply 
rejoice in the happy ending of a small tale, and give the last word 
to William James, still trying to set his friend Shaler straight: 

What if we did come where we are by chance, or by mere 
fact, with no one general design? What is gained, is gained, 
all the same. As to what may have been lost, who knows of it, 
in any case? 

Postscript: A Letter from Jimmy Carter 

I had heard many stories of Jimmy Carter’s personal kindness, 
and I had long admired him as the most intellectual of presidents 
since Roosevelt (the competition has not been too fierce of late). 
But I was delighted and surprised (to the point of shock) when I 
received a call, late one afternoon, from a woman who said, in a 
strong southern accent: “Please hold the line; President Carter 
would like to speak with you.” My first reaction, undoubtedly 
impolitic, was to blurt out: “President Carter who?” (I did think 
of Jimmy, but his tenure had ended nearly ten years ago and I 
didn't realize that certain titles, like diamonds and sainthood, are 
forever.) She replied with more than a hint of indignation: “For- 
mer president Jimmy Carter of the United States.” I allowed that 
I would hold. 

He came on the line a minute later. My first reaction was sur- 
prise that the voice sounded so much like that of our president 
from 1977 to 1980. My second reaction was to chastise myself for 
such incredible stupidity since it was, after all. Mr. Carter on the 


line — and people do tend to sound like themselves (even basi- 
cally competent folks can be mighty dimwitted when flustered). 
My third reaction was to wonder why, in heaven’s name, he was 
calling me. So I listened and soon found out. Carter said that he 
had read and enjoyed several of my books. He (hen read of my 
bout with cancer in the preface to The Flamingo's Smile. He 
wanted, in this light, to express his best wishes for my health but 
hesitated to call, lest I might be too ill to be disturbed. So he 
phoned my publishers, found out that my next book was in pro- 
duction, and that 1 had recovered. Feeling, therefore, that he 
would not be intruding, he had decided to call — simply to ex- 
press his good wishes and his hopes for my continued good 

What a lovely man, and what a gracious and kind act. I sent 
him, as a most inadequate expression of thanks, a copy of the 
book, Wonderful Life, when it appeared a few months later. Not 
long thereafter, I received a letter in reply: 

I had a chance to read Wonderful Life while traveling to 
Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia recently. Rosalynn and I were 
spending three weeks mediating between the Ethiopian 
government and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. 

. . . You may or may not be familiar with the horrendous 
wars in those countries. Between negotiating sessions, I 
found your book to be thoroughly enjoyable — perhaps your 
best so far. 

But Carter then voiced a major criticism, quite disabling if 
valid. I argue in Wonderful Life that human evolution would almost 
surely not occur again if we could rewind the tape of life back to 
the early history of multicellular animals (erasing what actually 
happened of course) and let it play again from an identical start- 
ing point (too many initial possibilities relative to later survivors, 
with no reason to think that survivors prevailed for reasons of 
superiority or any other version of predictability, and too much 
randomness and contingency in the pathways of life’s later his- 
tory). But Carter made a brilliant riposte to this central claim of 
my book. 

Jimmy Carter, if I understand his religious attitudes properly, 
upholds an unconventional point of view among Christian intel- 


lectuals on the issue of relationships between God and nature. 
Most theologians (in agreement with most scientists) now argue 
that facts of nature represent a domain different from the realm 
of religious attitudes and beliefs, and that these two worlds of 
equal value interact rather little. But Jimmy Carter is a twentieth- 
century natural theologian — that is, he accepts the older argu- 
ment, popular before Darwin, that the state of nature should 
provide material for inferring the existence and character of God. 
Nineteenth-century versions of natural theology, as embodied in 
Paley’s classic work (1802) of the same name, tended to argue 
that God’s nature and benevolence were manifest in the excellent 
design of organisms and the harmony of ecosystems — in other 
words, in natural goodness. Such an attitude would be hard to 
maintain in a century that knew two world wars, Hiroshima, and 
the Holocaust. If natural theology is to be advanced in our times, 
a new style of argument must be developed — one that acknowl- 
edges the misfits, horrors, and improbabilities, but sees God’s 
action as manifest nonetheless. I think that Carter developed a 
brilliant twentieth-century version of natural theology by criticiz- 
ing my book in the next paragraph of his letter: 

You seem to be straining mightily to prove that everything 
that has happened prior to an evolutionary screening pe- 
riod was just an accident, and that if the tape of life was 
replayed in countless different ways it is unlikely that cogni- 
tive creatures would have been created or evolved. It may 
be that when you raise “one chance in a million” to the 4th 
or 5th power there comes a time when pure “chance” can 
be questioned. I presume that you feel more at ease with the 
luck of 1 out of 10 to the 30th power than with the concept 
of a creator who/that has done some orchestrating. 

In other words, Carter asks, can’t the improbability of our evolu- 
tion become so great that the very fact of its happening must 
indicate some divine intent? One chance in ten can be true 
chance, but the realization of one chance in many billion might 
indicate intent. What else could a twentieth-century natural theo- 
logian do but locate God in the realization of improbability, 
rather than in the ineffable beauty of design! 

Carter’s argument is fascinating but, I believe, wrong — and 


wrong for the same reason that James invokes against Shaler (the 
central point of this essay). In fact, Carter’s argument is Shaler’s 
updated and more sophisticated. Shaler claimed that God must 
have superintended our evolution because the derailment or dis- 
ruption of any of thousands of links in our evolutionary chain 
would have canceled the possibility of our eventual appearance. 
James replied that we cannot read God in contingencies of his- 
tory because a probability cannot even be calculated for a singu- 
lar occurrence known only after the fact (whereas probabilities 
could be attached to predictions made at the beginning of a se- 
quence). James might as well have been answering Carter when 
he wrote to Shaler: 

But your argument that it is millions to one that it didn’t do 
so by chance doesn’t apply. It would apply if the witness had 
preexisted in an independent form and framed his scheme, 
and then the world had realized it. Such a coincidence 
would prove the world to have a kindred mind to his. But 
there has been no such coincidence. The world has come 
but once, the witness is there after the fact and simply ap- 
proves. . . . Where only one fact is in question, there is no 
relation of “probability” at all. 

Such is our intellectual heritage, such our continuity, that fine 
thinkers can speak to each other across the centuries. 

221 Kropotkin Was No 

in late 1909, two great men corresponded across 
oceans, religions, generations, and races. Leo Tolstoy, sage of 
Christian nonviolence in his later years, wrote to the young Mo- 
handas Gandhi, struggling for the rights of Indian settlers in 
South Africa: 

God helps our dear brothers and co-workers in the Trans- 
vaal. The same struggle of the tender against the harsh, of 
meekness and love against pride and violence, is every year 
making itself more and more felt here among us also. 

A year later, wearied by domestic strife, and unable to endure 
the contradiction of life in Christian poverty on a prosperous 
estate run with unwelcome income from his great novels (written 
before his religious conversion and published by his wife), Tol- 
stoy fled by train for parts unknown and a simpler end to his 
waning days. He wrote to his wife: 

My departure will distress you. I’m sorry about this, but do 
understand and believe that I couldn’t do otherwise. My 
position in the house is becoming, or has become, unbeara- 
ble. Apart from anything else, I can’t live any longer in these 
conditions of luxury in which I have been living, and I’m 
doing what old men of my age commonly do: leaving this 
worldly life in order to live the last days of my life in peace 
and solitude. 



The great novelist Leo Tolstoy, late in life, the bettmann archive. 

But Tolstoy’s final journey was both brief and unhappy. Less 
than a month later, cold and weary from numerous long rides on 
Russian trains in approaching winter, he contracted pneumonia 
and died at age eighty-two in the stationmaster’s home at the 
railroad stop of Astapovo. Too weak to write, he dictated his last 
letter on November 1, 1910. Addressed to a son and daughter 
who did not share his views on Christian nonviolence, Tolstoy 
offered a last word of advice: 


The views you have acquired about Darwinism, evolution, 
and the struggle for existence won’t explain to you the 
meaning of your life and won’t give you guidance in your 
actions, and a life without an explanation of its meaning and 
importance, and without the unfailing guidance that stems 
from it is a pitiful existence. Think about it. I say it, probably 
on the eve of my death, because I love you. 

Tolstoy’s complaint has been the most common of all indict- 
ments against Darwin, from the publication of the Origin of Species 
in 1859 to now. Darwinism, the charge contends, undermines 
morality by claiming that success in nature can only be measured 
by victory in bloody battle — the “struggle for existence” or “sur- 
vival of the fittest” to cite Darwin’s own choice of mottoes. If we 
wish “meekness and love” to triumph over “pride and violence” 
(as Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi), then we must repudiate Darwin’s 
vision of nature’s way — as Tolstoy stated in a final plea to his 
errant children. 

This charge against Darwin is unfair for two reasons. First, 
nature (no matter how cruel in human terms) provides no basis 
for our moral values. (Evolution might, at most, help to explain 
why we have moral feelings, but nature can never decide for us 
whether any particular action is right or wrong.) Second, Dar- 
win’s “struggle for existence” is an abstract metaphor, not an 
explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the 
criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in 
battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mu- 
tual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts. In a 
famous passage, Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary 
struggle ( Origin of Species, 1859, pp. 62-63): 

I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including 
dependence of one being on another, and including (which 
is more important) not only the life of the individual, but 
success in leaving progeny. T wo canine animals, in a time of 
dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which 
shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is 
said to struggle for life against the drought. ... As the 
mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on 
birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with 


other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour 
and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other 
plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I 
use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for 

Yet, in another sense, Tolstoy’s complaint is not entirely un- 
founded. Darwin did present an encompassing, metaphorical 
definition of struggle, but his actual examples certainly favored 
bloody battle — “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” in a line from 
Tennyson so overquoted that it soon became a knee-jerk cliche 
for this view of life. Darwin based his theory of natural selection 
on the dismal view of Malthus that growth in population must 
outstrip food supply and lead to overt battle for dwindling re- 
sources. Moreover, Darwin maintained a limited but controlling 
view of ecology as a world stuffed full of competing species — so 
balanced and so crowded that a new form could only gain entry 
by literally pushing a former inhabitant out. Darwin expressed 
this view in a metaphor even more central to his general vision 
than the concept of struggle — the metaphor of the wedge. Na- 
ture, Darwin writes, is like a surface with 10,000 wedges ham- 
mered tightly in and filling all available space. A new species 
(represented as a wedge) can only gain entry into a community by 
driving itself into a tiny chink and forcing another wedge out. 
Success, in this vision, can only be achieved by direct takeover in 
overt competition. 

Furthermore, Darwin’s own chief disciple, Thomas Henry 
Huxley, advanced this “gladiatorial” view of natural selection 
(his word) in a series of famous essays about ethics. Huxley main- 
tained that the predominance of bloody battle defined nature’s 
way as nonmoral (not explicitly immoral, but surely unsuited as 
offering any guide to moral behavior). 

From the point of view of the moralist the animal world is 
about on a level of a gladiator’s show. The creatures are 
fairly well treated, and set to fight — whereby the strongest, 
the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day. 
The spectator has no need to turn his thumbs down, as no 
quarter is given. 


But Huxley then goes further. Any human society set up along 
these lines of nature will devolve into anarchy and misery — 
Hobbes’s brutal world of bellum omnium contra omnes (where helium 
means “war,” not beauty): the war of all against all. Therefore, 
the chief purpose of society must lie in mitigation of the struggle 
that defines nature’s pathway. Study natural selection and do the 
opposite in human society: 

But, in civilized society, the inevitable result of such obedi- 
ence [to the law of bloody battle] is the re-establishment, in 
all its intensity, of that struggle for existence — the war of 
each against all — the mitigation or abolition of which was 
the chief end of social organization. 

This apparent discordance between nature’s way and any hope 
for human social decency has defined the major subject for de- 
bate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin. Huxley’s solu- 
tion has won many supporters — nature is nasty and no guide to 
morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of what to avoid in 
human society. My own preference lies with a different solution 
based on taking Darwin’s metaphorical view of struggle seriously 
(admittedly in the face of Darwin’s own preference for gladia- 
torial examples) — nature is sometimes nasty, sometimes nice (re- 
ally neither, since the human terms are so inappropriate). By 
presenting examples of all behaviors (under the metaphorical 
rubric of struggle), nature favors none and offers no guidelines. 
The facts of nature cannot provide moral guidance in any case. 

But a third solution has been advocated by some thinkers who 
do wish to find a basis for morality in nature and evolution. Since 
few can detect much moral comfort in the gladiatorial interpreta- 
tion, this third position must reformulate the way of nature. Dar- 
win’s words about the metaphorical character of struggle offer a 
promising starting point. One might argue that the gladiatorial 
examples have been over-sold and misrepresented as predomi- 
nant. Perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more common 
results of struggle for existence. Perhaps communion rather than 
combat leads to greater reproductive success in most circum- 

The most famous expression of this third solution may be 


Petr Kropotkin, a bearded but gentle anarchist, the 

found in Mutual Aid, published in 1902 by the Russian revolu- 
tionary anarchist Petr Kropotkin. (We must shed the old stereo- 
type of anarchists as bearded bomb throwers furtively stalking 
about city streets at night. Kropotkin was a genial man, almost 
saintly according to some, who promoted a vision of small 
communities setting their own standards by consensus for the 
benefit of all, thereby eliminating the need for most functions of 
a central government.) Kropotkin, a Russian nobleman, lived in 
English exile for political reasons. He wrote Mutual Aid (in En- 
glish) as a direct response to the essay of Huxley quoted above, 
“The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” published in The 
Nineteenth Century, in February 1888. Kropotkin responded to 


Huxley with a series of articles, also printed in The Nineteenth Cen- 
tury and eventually collected together as the book Mutual Aid. 

As the title suggests, Kropotkin argues, in his cardinal premise, 
that the struggle for existence usually leads to mutual aid rather 
than combat as the chief criterion of evolutionary success. 
Human society must therefore build upon our natural inclina- 
tions (not reverse them, as Huxley held) in formulating a moral 
order that will bring both peace and prosperity to our species. In 
a series of chapters, Kropotkin tries to illustrate continuity be- 
tween natural selection for mutual aid among animals and the 
basis for success in increasingly progressive human social organi- 
zation. His five sequential chapters address mutual aid among 
animals, among savages, among barbarians, in the medieval city, 
and amongst ourselves. 

I confess that I have always viewed Kropotkin as daftly idiosyn- 
cratic, if undeniably well meaning. He is always so presented in 
standard courses on evolutionary biology — as one of those soft 
and woolly thinkers who let hope and sentimentality get in the 
way of analytic toughness and a willingness to accept nature as 
she is, warts and all. After all, he was a man of strange politics and 
unworkable ideals, wrenched from the context of his youth, a 
stranger in a strange land. Moreover, his portrayal of Darwin so 
matched his social ideals (mutual aid naturally given as a product 
of evolution without need for central authority) that one could 
only see personal hope rather than scientific accuracy in his ac- 
counts. Kropotkin has long been on my list of potential topics for 
an essay (if only because I wanted to read his book, and not 
merely mouth the textbook interpretation), but I never pro- 
ceeded because I could find no larger context than the man him- 
self. Kooky intellects are interesting as gossip, perhaps as 
psychology, but true idiosyncrasy provides the worst possible 
basis for generality. 

But this situation changed for me in a flash when I read a very 
fine article in the latest issue of Isis (our leading professional 
journal in the history of science) by Daniel P. Todes: “Darwin’s 
Malthusian Metaphor and Russian Evolutionary Thought, 1859- 
1917.” I learned that the parochiality had been mine in my igno- 
rance of Russian evolutionary thought, not Kropotkin’s in his 
isolation in England. (I can read Russian, but only painfully, and 
with a dictionary — which means, for all practical purposes, that I 


can’t read the language.) I knew that Darwin had become a hero 
of the Russian intelligentsia and had influenced academic life in 
Russia perhaps more than in any other country. But virtually 
none of this Russian work has ever been translated or even dis- 
cussed in English literature. The ideas of this school are unknown 
to us; we do not even recognize the names of the major protago- 
nists. 1 knew Kropotkin because he had published in English and 
lived in England, but 1 never understood that he represented a 
standard, well-developed Russian critique of Darwin, based on 
interesting reasons and coherent national traditions. Todes’s ar- 
ticle does not make Kropotkin more correct, but it does place his 
writing into a general context that demands our respect and pro- 
duces substantial enlightenment. Kropotkin was part of a main- 
stream flowing in an unfamiliar direction, not an isolated little 

This Russian school of Darwinian critics, Todes argues, based 
its major premise upon a firm rejection of Malthus’s claim that 
competition, in the gladiatorial mode, must dominate in an ever 
more crowded world, where population, growing geometrically, 
inevitably outstrips a food supply that can only increase arith- 
metically. Tolstoy, speaking for a consensus of his compatriots, 
branded Malthus as a “malicious mediocrity.” 

Todes finds a diverse set of reasons behind Russian hostility to 
Malthus. Political objections to the dog-eat-dog character of 
Western industrial competition arose from both ends of the Rus- 
sian spectrum. Todes writes: 

Radicals, who hoped to build a socialist society, saw Malthu- 
sianism as a reactionary current in bourgeois political econ- 
omy. Conservatives, who hoped to preserve the communal 
virtues of tsarist Russia, saw it as an expression of the “Brit- 
ish national type.” 

But l odes identifies a far more interesting reason in the imme- 
diate experience of Russia’s land and natural history. We all have 
a tendency to spin universal theories from a limited domain of 
surrounding circumstance. Many geneticists read the entire 
world of evolution in the confines of a laboratory bottle filled with 
fruit flies. My own increasing dubiousness about universal adap- 
tation arises in large part, no doubt, because I study a peculiar 


snail that varies so widely and capriciously across an apparently 
unvarying environment, rather than a bird in flight or some other 
marvel of natural design. 

Russia is an immense country, under-populated by any nine- 
teenth-century measure of its agricultural potential. Russia is 
also, over most of its area, a harsh land, where competition is 
more likely to pit organism against environment (as in Darwin’s 
metaphorical struggle of a plant at the desert’s edge) than orga- 
nism against organism in direct and bloody battle. How could any 
Russian, with a strong feel for his own countryside, see Malthus’s 
principle of overpopulation as a foundation for evolutionary the- 
ory? Todes writes: 

It was foreign to their experience because, quite simply, 
Russia’s huge land mass dwarfed its sparse population. For 
a Russian to see an inexorably increasing population inevi- 
tably straining potential supplies of food and space re- 
quired quite a leap of imagination. 

If these Russian critics could honestly tie their personal skepti- 
cism to the view from their own backyard, they could also recog- 
nize that Darwin’s contrary enthusiasms might record the 
parochiality of his different surroundings, rather than a set of 
necessarily universal truths. Malthus makes a far better prophet 
in a crowded, industrial country professing an ideal of open com- 
petition in free markets. Moreover, the point has often been 
made that both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently 
developed the theory of natural selection after primary experi- 
ence with natural history in the tropics. Both claimed inspiration 
from Malthus, again independently; but if fortune favors the pre- 
pared mind, then their tropical experience probably predisposed 
both men to read Malthus with resonance and approval. No other 
area on earth is so packed with species, and therefore so replete 
with competition of body against body. An Englishman who had 
learned the ways of nature in the tropics was almost bound to 
view evolution differently from a Russian nurtured on tales of the 
Siberian wasteland. 

For example, N. I. Danilevsky, an expert on fisheries and popu- 
lation dynamics, published a large, two-volume critique of Dar- 
winism in 1885. He identified struggle for personal gain as the 



credo of a distinctly British “national type,” as contrasted with 
old Slavic values of collectivism. An English child, he writes, 
“boxes one on one, not in a group as we Russians like to spar.” 
Danilevsky viewed Darwinian competition as “a purely English 
doctrine” founded upon a line of British thought stretching from 
Hobbes through Adam Smith to Malthus. Natural selection, he 
wrote, is rooted in “the war of all against all, now termed the 
struggle for existence — Hobbes’ theory of politics; on competi- 
tion — the economic theory of Adam Smith. . . . Malthus applied 
the very same principle to the problem of population. . . . Darwin 
extended both Malthus’ partial theory and the general theory of 
the political economists to the organic world.” (Quotes are from 
Todes’s article.) 

When we turn to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid in the light of Todes’s 
discoveries about Russian evolutionary thought, we must reverse 
the traditional view and interpret this work as mainstream Rus- 
sian criticism, not personal crankiness. The central logic of Kro- 
potkin’s argument is simple, straightforward, and largely cogent. 

Kropotkin begins by acknowledging that struggle plays a cen- 
tral role in the lives of organisms and also provides the chief 
impetus for their evolution. But Kropotkin holds that struggle 
must not be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. It must be divided 
into two fundamentally different forms with contrary evolution- 
ary meanings. We must recognize, first of all. the struggle of 
organism against organism for limited resources — the theme that 
Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as 
gladiatorial. This form of direct struggle does lead to competi- 
tion for personal benefit. 

But a second form of struggle — the style that Darwin called 
metaphorical — pits organism against the harshness of surround- 
ing physical environments, not against other members of the 
same species. Organisms must struggle to keep warm, to survive 
the sudden and unpredictable dangers of fire and storm, to per- 
severe through harsh periods of drought, snow, or pestilence. 
These forms of struggle between organism and environment are 
best waged by cooperation among members of the same spe- 
cies — by mutual aid. If the struggle for existence pits two lions 
against one zebra, then we shall witness a feline battle and an 
equine carnage. But if lions are struggling jointly against the 


harshness of an inanimate environment, then fighting will not 
remove the common enemy — while cooperation may overcome a 
peril beyond the power of any single individual to surmount. 

Kropotkin therefore created a dichotomy within the general 
notion of struggle — two forms with opposite import: (1) orga- 
nism against organism of the same species for limited resources, 
leading to competition; and (2) organism against environment, 
leading to cooperation. 

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of a struggle for life 
carried on through organic nature is the greatest generali- 
zation of our century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle 
the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions “by 
which arms is the struggle chiefly carried on?” and “who are 
the fittest in the struggle?” will widely differ according to 
the importance given to the two different aspects of the 
struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate 
individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as 
“metaphorical" — the struggle, very often collective, against 
adverse circumstances. 

Darwin acknowledged that both forms existed, but his loyalty 
to Malthus and his vision of nature chock-full of species led him 
to emphasize the competitive aspect. Darwin’s less sophisticated 
votaries then exalted the competitive view to near exclusivity, and 
heaped a social and moral meaning upon it as well. 

They came to conceive of the animal world as a world of 
perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals, thirsting 
for one another’s blood. They made modern literature re- 
sound with the war-cry of woe to the vanquished , as if it were 
the last word of modern biology. They raised the “pitiless” 
struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biologi- 
cal principle which man must submit to as well, under the 
menace of otherwise succumbing in a world based upon 
mutual extermination. 

Kropotkin did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but 
he argued that the cooperative style had been underemphasized 


and must balance or even predominate over competition in con- 
sidering nature as a whole. 

T here is an immense amount of warfare and extermination 
going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, 
as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual 
aid, and mutual defense. . . . Sociability is as much a law of 
nature as mutual struggle. 

As Kropotkin cranked through his selected examples, and built 
up steam for his own preferences, he became more and more 
convinced that the cooperative style, leading to mutual aid, not 
only predominated in general but also characterized the most 
advanced creatures in any group — ants among insects, mammals 
among vertebrates. Mutual aid therefore becomes a more impor- 
tant principle than competition and slaughter: 

If we . . . ask Nature: “who are the fittest: those who are 
continually at war with each other, or those who support 
one another?” we at once see that those animals which ac- 
quire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fit test. They 
have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their re- 
spective classes, the highest development of intelligence 
and bodily organization. 

If we ask why Kropotkin favored cooperation while most nine- 
teenth-century Darwinians advocated competition as the pre- 
dominant result of struggle in nature, two major reasons stand 
out. The first seems less interesting, as obvious under the slightly 
cynical but utterly realistic principle that true believers tend to 
read their social preferences into nature. Kropotkin, the anar- 
chist who yearned to replace laws of central government with 
consensus of local communities, certainly hoped to locate a deep 
preference for mutual aid in the innermost evolutionary marrow 
of our being. Let mutual aid pervade nature and human coopera- 
tion becomes a simple instance of the law of life. 

Neither the crushing powers of the centralized State nor the 
teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which 


came, adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging 
philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of 
human solidarity, deeply lodged in men’s understanding 
and heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding 

But the second reason is more enlightening, as a welcome em- 
pirical input from Kropotkin’s own experience as a naturalist and 
an affirmation of Todes’s intriguing thesis that the usual flow 
from ideology to interpretation of nature may sometimes be re- 
versed, and that landscape can color social preference. As a 
young man, long before his conversion to political radicalism, 
Kropotkin spent five years in Siberia (1862-1866) just after Dar- 
win published the Origin of Species. He went as a military officer, 
but his commission served as a convenient cover for his yearning 
to study the geology, geography, and zoology of Russia’s vast 
interior. There, in the polar opposite to Darwin’s tropical experi- 
ences, he dwelled in the environment least conducive to Mal- 
thus’s vision. He observed a sparsely populated world, swept with 
frequent catastrophes that threatened the few species able to find 
a place in such bleakness. As a potential disciple of Darwin, he 
looked for competition, but rarely found any. Instead, he contin- 
ually observed the benefits of mutual aid in coping with an exte- 
rior harshness that threatened all alike and could not be 
overcome by the analogues of warfare and boxing. 

Kropotkin, in short, had a personal and empirical reason to 
look with favor upon cooperation as a natural force. He chose this 
theme as the opening paragraph for Mutual Aid: 

Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the 
journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and 
Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity 
of the struggle for existence which most species of animals 
have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous 
destruction of life which periodically results from natural 
agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast 
territory which fell under my observation. And the other 
was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed 
in abundance, I failed to find — although I was eagerly look- 


ing for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence 
among animals belonging to the same species, which was 
considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Dar- 
win himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for 
life, and the main factor of evolution. 

What can we make of Kropotkin’s argument today, and that of 
the entire Russian school represented by him? Were they just 
victims of cultural hope and intellectual conservatism? I don’t 
think so. In fact, I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is 
correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to 
cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to 
advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual 
aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated com- 
petition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope 
for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians 
had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would 
now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppres- 
sion of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selec- 
tion in the competitive mode. 

I would fault Kropotkin only in two ways — one technical, the 
other general. He did commit a common conceptual error in 
failing to recognize that natural selection is an argument about 
advantages to individual organisms, however they may struggle. 
The result of struggle for existence may be cooperation rather 
than competition, but mutual aid must benefit individual orga- 
nisms in Darwin’s world of explanation. Kropotkin sometimes 
speaks of mutual aid as selected for the benefit of entire popula- 
tions or species — a concept foreign to classic Darwinian logic 
(where organisms work, albeit unconsciously, for their own bene- 
fit in terms of genes passed to future generations). But Kropotkin 
also (and often) recognized that selection for mutual aid directly 
benefits each individual in its own struggle for personal success. 
Thus, if Kropotkin did not grasp the full implication of Darwin’s 
basic argument, he did include the orthodox solution as his pri- 
mary justification for mutual aid. 

More generally, I like to apply a somewhat cynical rule of 
thumb in judging arguments about nature that also have overt 
social implications: When such claims imbue nature with just 
those properties that make us feel good or fuel our prejudices, be 


doubly suspicious. I am especially wary of arguments that find 
kindness, mutuality, synergism, harmony — the very elements that 
we strive mightily, and so often unsuccessfully, to put into our 
own lives — intrinsically in nature. I see no evidence for Teilhard’s 
noosphere, for Capra’s California style of holism, for Sheldrake’s 
morphic resonance. Gaia strikes me as a metaphor, not a mecha- 
nism. (Metaphors can be liberating and enlightening, but new 
scientific theories must supply new statements about causality. 
Gaia, to me, only seems to reformulate, in different terms, the 
basic conclusions long achieved by classically reductionist argu- 
ments of biogeochemical cycling theory.) 

There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsi- 
cally anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms — if 
only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a 
world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to 
moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. 
They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us — the most dif- 
ficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus. 

Fleeming Jenkin Revisited 

the European revolutions of 1848 played a piv- 
otal role in several famous lives. Karl Marx, exiled from Ger- 
many, published the last issue of his Neue Rheinische Zeitung in red, 
then moved to England, where he constructed Das Kapital in the 
reading room of the British Museum. The young Richard Wag- 
ner, espousing an idealistic socialism that he would later reject 
with vigor, manned the barricades of Dresden, then fled from 
Germany to avoid a warrant for his arrest and missed the pre- 
miere of Lohengnn. 

Another man, destined for a lesser but secure reputation, ex- 
perienced a touch of the same excitement. In February 1848, 
Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin, a fourteen-year-old boy from 
Scotland, found himself in Paris surrounded by rebellion. He 
wrote to a friend in Edinburgh: “Now then, F’rank, what do 
you think of it? I in a revolution and out all day. Just think, 
what fun!” 

In 1867, the same Fleeming Jenkin would taste revolution of a 
different kind — this time as a transient participant, not a mere 
observer. In his much revised fifth edition of the Origin of Species, 
Charles Darwin made a substantial concession by admitting that 
favorable variations arising in single individuals could not spread 
through entire populations. (In retrospect, Darwin need not have 
conceded. He based his admission on a false view of heredity. In a 
Mendelian world, unknown to Darwin, such favorable variations 
can spread — see subsequent discussion in this essay. Nonethe- 
less, Darwin’s concession represents a small but celebrated inci- 
dent in the history of evolutionary thought.) Darwin wrote: 



I saw . . . that the preservation in a state of nature of any 
occasional deviation of structure . . . would be a rare event; 
and that, if preserved, it would generally be lost by subse- 
quent intercrossing with ordinary individuals. Nevertheless, 
until reading an able and valuable article in the North British 
Review (1867), I did not appreciate how rarely single varia- 
tions whether slight or strongly marked could be inherited. 

Nearly every book in the history of evolution recounts the tale 
and refers to the author of this “able and valuable article” as “a 
Scottish engineer” or, more often, “an obscure Scottish engi- 
neer.” The author was Fleeming (pronounced Flemming) Jenkin. 
Darwin, more explicit and vexed in private letters than in public 
texts, wrote to Joseph Hooker in 1869: “Fleeming Jenkin has 
given me much trouble. . . .” — and to Alfred Russel Wallace a few 
days later: “Fleeming Jenkin’s arguments have convinced me.” 

All evolutionists recognize (and mispronounce by excessive lit- 
eralism) Fleeming Jenkin as the man who forced an explicit, 
though unnecessary, concession from Darwin. But we know noth- 
ing about him and tend to assume that he rose from general 
obscurity for one small moment in our sun — a lamentable paro- 
chialism on our part. 

My own career has included two fortuitous and peculiar inter- 
sections with Fleeming Jenkin — so I decided that I must write a 
column about him now, before a third encounter elevates coinci- 
dence to inescapable pattern. I was an undergraduate at Antioch 
College from 1958 to 1963. Antioch was (and is) a wonderful 
school in the finest American tradition of small liberal arts col- 
leges. But it doesn’t boast much in the way of library facilities for 
scholarship based on original sources. One day in 1960, I was 
browsing aimlessly through the stacks and found a crumbling run 
of the North British Review for the mid-nineteenth century. I rec- 
ognized the name from Darwin’s citation, and my heart skipped a 
beat as I hoped against hope that the volume for 1867 lay within 
the series. It did, and I then spent a more anxious minute con- 
vinced that I had the wrong title or that the issue for the right 
month would be missing. It wasn’t. I found Jenkin’s article and 
rushed to the pre-Xerox wet processor (anachronistically named 
smellox by a friend of mine several years later, in honor of the 
unpleasant chemical that left its signature even after drying). I 


fed dimes into the machine and soon had my precious copy of the 
original Fleemingjenkin. What a prize I thought I had. I was sure 
that I possessed the only copy in the whole world. (Can you imag- 
ine what one peek at the Harvard library does to such naivete?) I 
have carried that copy with me ever since, assigning its properly 
Xeroxed offspring to classes now and again, but never dreaming 
that I would write anything about Jenkin. 

Then, last month, I was browsing through a friend’s Victorian 
literature collection, aimlessly running my eye along the titles of 
Robert Louis Stevenson's complete works. I found Treasure Is- 
land, Kidnapped, and all the other items of my old “Author’s” card 
game. But my heart skipped another beat at the next title: Memoir 
of Fleemingjenkin. The “obscure Scottish engineer” had achieved 
sufficient renown (in areas far from my own parish, where he only 
dabbled, however successfully) to win a full volume from Steven- 
son’s pen. I kicked myself for sectarian assumptions in the grant- 
ing of “importance,” vowed to learn more about Jenkin (and to 
tell my fellow evolutionists), and raided the stacks of Widener 
Library, where I found several copies of Stevenson’s memoir, 
amidst (no doubt) a liberal sprinkling of North British Reviews for 
1867 (which , smelloci gratia, I didn’t need). 

An interesting man, Fleemingjenkin — and made all the more 
appealing by the strength of Stevenson's prose. Jenkin spent 
most of his life in Edinburgh, where he campaigned for the im- 
provement of home sanitation, conducted some of Britain’s first 
experiments with the phonograph, produced and directed ama- 
teur theatricals, hated golf (for a Scotsman, I suppose, about as 
bad as an American who barfs on apple pie), and became the first 
professor of engineering at the University of Edinburgh. Most 
important, he was a close friend and colleague of Lord Kelvin and 
spent most of his career designing and outfitting transoceanic 
cables with the great physicist. 

Stevenson’s book has a lovely, archaic charm. It describes a 
moral perfection that cannot be, and belongs to the genre of 
guiding homilies based on lives of the great. Ifjenkin ever gazed 
at a woman other than his wife, if he ever raised his voice in anger 
or acted in even momentary pettiness, we are not told. Instead, 
we get glimpses of a simpler and formal world based on unques- 
tioned certainties. In 1877, Jenkin writes to his absent wife about 
their son: “Frewen had to come up and sit in my room for com- 


pany last night and I actually kissed him, a thing that has not 
occurred for years.” The Captain, Jenkin’s aged father, dies at 
age eighty-four but achieves solace in his last hour from a false 
report on the rescue of General “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum: 
“He has been waiting with painful interest for news of Gordon 
and Khartoum; and by great good fortune, a false report reached 
him that the city was relieved, and the men of Sussex (his old 
neighbors) had been the first to enter. He sat up in bed and gave 
three cheers for the Sussex regiment.” 

Stevenson’s memoir contains exactly one line on Jenkin’s 1867 
foray into evolutionary theory: “He had begun by this time to 
write. His paper on Darwin . . . had the merit of convincing on 
one point the philosopher himself.” Evidently, Jenkin needed 
neither evolution nor the North British Review to merit Steven- 
son’s extended attention. I felt a bit ashamed at my own previous 
parochialism. Do grocers know Thomas Jefferson (or was it Ben- 
jamin Franklin) only as the man who invented that thing that gets 
the cereal boxes down from the top shelf? 

The backward reading of history has cruelly misserved many 
fine thinkers, Jenkin included. (Professionals refer to this un- 
happy tactic as “Whiggish history” in dubious memory of those 
Whig historians who evaluated predecessors exclusively by their 
adherence to ideals of Whig politics unknown in their own times.) 

Jenkin has suffered because commentators extract from his 
1867 article just the one small point that provoked Darwin’s con- 
cession — and then analyze his argument in modern terms by 
pointing out that a twentieth-century Darwin could stick to his 
Mendelian guns. No modern evolutionary biologist, to my knowl- 
edge, has ever considered Jenkin’s treatise as a whole and ap- 
preciated its force, despite its errors in modern terms. I shall 
attempt this rescue but bow first to the constraints of history and 
discuss the point that secured Jenkin’s slight renown in evolu- 
tionary circles. 

Darwin and Jenkin accepted the usual notion of heredity preva- 
lent in their times — a concept called blending inheritance. Under 
blending inheritance, the offspring of two parents tend to lie half- 
way between for inherited characters. Jenkin pointed out to Dar- 
win, or so the usual and quite inadequate story goes, that 
blending inheritance would challenge natural selection because 
any favorable variant would be swamped out by back-breeding 


with the predominant parental forms. Jenkin’s own example will 
make his argument clear. It also serves as a sad reminder of un- 
questioned racism in Victorian England — and as an indication 
that, for all our pressing problems, we have improved somewhat 
during the past century: 

Suppose a white man to have been wrecked on an island 
inhabited by negroes. . . . Suppose him to possess the physi- 
cal strength, energy, and ability of a dominant white race 
. . . grant him every advantage which we can conceive a 
white to possess over the native. ... Yet from all these 
admissions, there does not follow the conclusion that, after 
a limited or unlimited number of generations, the inhabi- 
tants of the island will be white. Our shipwrecked hero 
would probably become king; he would kill a great many 
blacks in the struggle for existence; he would have a great 
many wives and children, while many of his subjects would 
live and die as bachelors. ... In the first generation there 
will be some dozens of intelligent young mulattoes, much 
superior in average intelligence to the negroes. We might 
expect the throne for some generations to be occupied by a 
more or less yellow king; but can any one believe that the 
whole island will gradually acquire a white, or even a yellow 
population . . . for if a very highly favored white cannot 
blanch a nation of negroes, it will hardly be contended that 
a comparatively dull mulatto has a good chance of produc- 
ing a tawny tribe. 

In other words, by blending inheritance, the offspring of the 
first generation will be only half white. Most of these mulattoes, 
since full blacks so greatly predominate (and following prohibi- 
tions against incest), will marry full blacks, and their offspring of 
the second generation will be one-quarter white. By the same 
argument, the proportion of white blood will dilute to one-eighth 
in the third generation and soon dwindle to oblivion, despite 
supposed advantages. 

Darwin, or so the story goes, saw the strength of this argument 
and retreated in frustrated impotence toward the Lamarckian 
views that he had previously rejected. Whiggery then comes to 
the rescue. Inheritance is Mendelian, or “particulate,” not blend- 


ing (though Darwin died long before the rediscovery of Mendel’s 
laws in 1900). Traits based on genetic mutations do not dilute; 
genes that determine such traits are entities or particles that do 
not degrade by mixing with genes of the other parent in off- 
spring. Indeed, if recessive, a favorable trait will appear in no 
offspring of the first generation (in matings between the favored 
mutant and ordinary partners carrying the dominant gene). But 
the trait does not dilute to oblivion. In the second generation, 
one-quarter of the offspring between mixed parents will carry 
two doses of the advantageous recessive gene and will express 
the favored trait. Any subsequent matings between these double 
recessives will pass the favored trait to all offspring — and it can 
spread through the population if concentrated by natural selec- 
tion. (Skin color and height seem to blend because they are deter- 
mined by such a large number of particulate genes. The average 
effect may be a blend, yet the genes remain intact and subject to 

But this usual story fails when we properly locatejenkin’s point 
about blending in the wider context of an argument that pervades 
the entire essay — and do not simply extract the item as a kernel 
deserving modern notice while discarding the rest as chaff. As 
historian Peter J. Vorzimmer notes in his excellent book, Charles 
Darwin: The Years of Controversy (1970), Jenkin presented his argu- 
ments about blending in discussing only one particular kind of 
variation — single favorable variants substantially different from pa- 
rental forms. 

Darwin was no fool. He had thought about variation as deeply 
as any man. His longest book, the two-volume Variation of Animals 
and Plants Under Domestication (1868), summarizes everything he 
and almost everyone else knew about the subject. Can we seri- 
ously believe that he had never thought about problems that 
blending posed for natural selection — that he needed a prod 
from an engineer to recognize the difficulty? As Vorzimmer 
shows, Darwin had pondered long and hard about problems pro- 
voked by blending. Jenkin did not introduce Darwin to this basic 
problem of inheritance; rather, he made a distinction between 
the kinds of variation that blending affects, and Darwin welcomed 
the argument because it reinforced and sharpened one of his 
favorite views. Darwin did not retreat before Jenkin’s onslaught, 
but rather felt more secure in his preferred belief — hence his 


expressed gratitude tojenkin and hence (I assume) Stevenson’s 
single comment that Jenkin had convinced “on one point the 
philosopher himself.” Stevenson, the novelist, understood. We 
have forgotten. 

1 he real issue has been lost in a terminology understood in 
Darwin’s time but no longer familiar. Let us return to Darwin’s 
letter to Wallace, quoting the passage this time in full: “I always 
thought individual differences more important than single varia- 
tions, but now I have come to the conclusion that they are of 
paramount importance, and in this I believe I agree with you. 
Fleemingjenkin’s arguments have convinced me.” 

In Darwin’s time, “individual differences” referred to recur- 
rent variations of small scale, while “single variations” identified 
unique changes of large scope and import — often called 
“sports.” Debate had focused on whether small-scale and contin- 
uous, or occasional and larger, variations supplied the raw mate- 
rial for evolutionary change. Darwin, the quintessential 
continuationist of this or any other age, had long preferred recur- 
rent small-scale changes but had continued to flirt (largely by 
weight of tradition) with larger sports. Now, the simple point of 
Jenkin s argument: Note that he speaks of one white man identi- 
fied (in the racist tradition) as vastly superior to the natives — in 
other words, a single sport. Jenkin’s famous blending argument 
refers only to single, marked variations — not to the continuous 
recurrent variations that Darwin preferred. By accepting Jenkin’s 
view, Darwin could finally rid himself of a form of variation that 
he had never favored. 

As for recuri ent, small-scale variation (individual differences, 
in Darwin’s terminology), blending posed no insurmountable 
problem, and Darwin had resolved the issue in his own mind 
long before reading Jenkin. A blending variation can still es- 
tablish itself in a population under two conditions: first, if the 
favorable variation continues to arise anew so that any dilution by 
blending can be balanced by reappearances, thus keeping the 
trait visible to natural selection; second, if individuals bearing the 
favored trait can recognize each other and mate preferentially— a 
process known as assortative mating in evolutionary jargon. As- 
sortative mating can arise for several reasons, including aesthetic 
preference for mates of one’s ow n appearance and simple isola- 


lion of the favored variants from normal individuals. Darwin rec- 
ognized both recurrent appearance and isolation as the primary 
reasons for natural selection’s continued power in the face of 

With this background, we can finally exhume the real point and 
logic of Jenkin’s essay — an issue still very much alive, and dis- 
cussed (through all his factual errors) in a most interesting and 
perceptive way by Fleeming Jenkin. Jenkin’s essay is a critique of 
Darwin’s continuationist perspective — his distinctive claim, still 
maintained by the evolutionary orthodoxy — that all large-scale 
phenomena of evolution may be rendered by accumulating, 
through vast amounts of time, the tiny changes that we observe in 
modern populations. I call this conventional view the “extrapola- 
tionist” argument; I also share Jenkin’s opinion (but for different 
reasons) that this traditional mode of thinking cannot explain all 
of evolution. I find it supremely ironic that the one small section 
of Jenkin’s article not about Darwin’s claim for continuity (his 
argument that single sports will be swamped by blending) has 
become the only part that we remember — and, to make matters 
worse, usually misinterpret. Such, however, is the usual fate of 
Whig heroes and villains. 

A simple, almost pedantic, precis of Jenkin’s argument should 
rescue his larger point. Jenkin’s essay proceeds in four parts. The 
first, on limits of variation, admits that Darwin’s favored style of 
recurrent, continuous variation does occur and can be manipu- 
lated by natural selection to change the average form of a species. 
But, Jenkin argues, such variations always fiddle in minor ways 
with parts already present; they cannot construct anything new. 
Thus, natural selection can make dogs big, small, blocky, or elon- 
gate — but cannot change a dog into something else. Jenkin ex- 
presses this argument in his powerful metaphor of the “sphere of 
variation.” Natural selection may move the average form any- 
where within the sphere, but not beyond its fixed limits: 

A given animal or plant appears to be contained, as it 
were, within a sphere of variation; one individual lies near 
one portion of the surface, another individual, of the same 
species, near another part of the surface; the average animal 
at the center. 


Common experience, Jenkin affirms, supports his view. Artifi- 
cial selection practiced by breeders proceeds rapidly at first but 
soon reaches frustrating limits. Jenkin writes of racehorses: 

Hundreds of skillful men are yearly breeding thousands of 
racers. Wealth and honor await the man who can breed one 
horse to run one part in five thousand faster than his fel- 
lows. As a matter of experience, have our racers improved 
in speed by one part in a thousand during the last twenty 

Darwin, Jenkin claims, maintains an unwarranted faith in the 
power of simple time to overcome these barriers: 

The difference between six years and six myriads, blending 
by a confused sense of immensity, leads men to say hastily 
that if six or sixty years can make a pouter out of a com- 
mon pigeon, six myriads may change a pigeon to something 
like a thrush; but this seems no more accurate than to con- 
clude that because we observe that a cannon-ball has tra- 
versed a mile in a minute, therefore in an hour it will be sixty 
miles off, and in the course of ages that it will reach the fixed 

Darwin might argue, Jenkin admits, that once a species reaches 
the limit of its glass sphere, time will eventually reconstitute this 
edge as a new center and produce a new sphere around the previ- 
ously peripheral point. Jenkin also rejects this argument: 

The average or original race . . . will [in Darwin’s view] 
spontaneously lose the tendency to relapse and acquire a 
tendency to vary outside the sphere. What is to produce this 
change? Time simply, apparently. . . . This seems rather like 
the idea that keeping a bar of iron hot or cold for a long time 
would leave it permanently hot or cold at the end of the 
period when the heating or cooling agent was withdrawn. 

Jenkin s second section, on types of variation, begins by admit- 
ting Darwin’s point that small-scale recurrent variations will not 
be destroyed by blending. But these are the very variations sub- 


ject to strict limits by the previous argument about rigid spheres. 
What kind of variation might then induce the evolution of some- 
thing substantially new? Single sports might seem promising, but 
these are the rare events that will be swamped by blending — and 
readers may now note the point that Jenkin himself wished to 
make with the only part of his argument that we remember. But 
perhaps some kinds of sports do not blend and do perpetuate 
their kind. Fine, Jenkin admits. Perhaps such creatures do occa- 
sionally arise and produce new species. But such a process is not 
Darwinian evolution, for Darwin insisted that natural selection 
acts as a creative force by gradually accumulating favorable vari- 
ants. Indeed, would such a process be very different from what 
the vernacular calls “creation”? 

The third part argues that even if Darwin could find (which he 
can’t) some way to accumulate small-scale recurrent variations 
into something new, geology does not supply enough time for 
such a slow process. Here Jenkin relied on the false arguments of 
his dearest friend, Lord Kelvin, about the earth’s relatively young 
age (see Essay 8, on Kelvin, in The Flamingo's Smile). 

The last section presents a powerful (and I think entirely cor- 
rect) argument about the difficulty of inferring historical path- 
ways from current situations. Jenkin contends that nearly any 
current situation can arise via several historical routes; thus the 
situation by itself cannot specify the pathway. Jenkin points out 
that Darwin bases much of his argument upon the lack of definite 
boundaries in nature — the intergradation of species into species, 
or geographic region into region. Darwin’s continuationism pre- 
dicts just such an absence of boundaries since species are gradu- 
ally and imperceptibly changed into their descendants, while a 
creator should leave gaps between his incarnated objects. But 
Jenkin argues that many natural items come as continua, yet 
clearly do not arise by a process of historical transformation. Ar- 
guing, as he does throughout, by metaphor and analogy, Jenkin 

Legal difficulties furnish another illustration. Does a partic- 
ular case fall within a particular statute? Is it ruled by this or 
that precedent? The number of statutes or groups is lim- 
ited; the number of possible combinations of events almost 


Taken as an entirety, Jenkin’s argument possesses a kind of 
relentless logic. The critique of Darwin’s extrapolationism serves 
as its unifying theme. Part one argues that small-scale variation 
cannot extend beyond fixed limits. Part two claims that no style of 
variation can make something substantially new in a Darwinian 
world. Part three proposes that even if Darwin could find a way, 
geology does not permit enough time. Finally, part four holds 
that we cannot infer historical transformations from the admitted 
continua of nature. 

I don’t want to fall into a Whiggish pit and judge Jenkin by 
current standards (everything that has gone before in this essay 
adequately discharges, I hope, my dues to anti-Whiggery). But 
old arguments usually repay our close attention because we often 
stop discussing the fundamentals once an orthodoxy triumphs, 
and we need to consult the original debates in order to rediscover 
the largest issues — perhaps never really resolved but merely 
swept under a rug of concord. Much of Jenkin’s argument fails 
today, for few things last a century in science. He was clearly 
wrong about blending in part two and about time in part three. 
But I believe that he was right about continua in part four and 
that we are still plagued by a tendency to make an almost auto- 
matic inference about history when we fail to find clear bounda- 

1 he first argument about limits of variation has also risen again 
in current debates about evolutionary processes. I don’t accept 
Jenkin s metaphor of the sphere, because small quantitative 
changes can accumulate to qualitative effects or leaps (contrary to 
Jenkin s position), and because 1 accept Darwin’s argument that 
new spheres can be reconstituted about previously peripheral 

But neither (probably) is a species the kind of almost equipo- 
tential sphere that strict Darwinians envisaged — unconstrained 
and capable of rolling anywhere that natural selection pushes. 
Constraints imposed by genetics and development have emerged 
as a central topic in contemporary evolutionary debate — and 
Fleemingjenkin did present an insight worth considering. 

In short, Darwin’s strictly extrapolationist vision may not de- 
scribe large-scale evolution very well — small, local adaptations 
built in the refiner’s fire of Darwinian competition among orga- 
nisms struggling for reproductive success may not, by extension, 


explain trends that persist for millions of years or relays of chang- 
ing diversity that mass extinctions produce. Jenkin, who pre- 
sented the most logical dissection of Darwin’s continuationist 
vision in 1867, does reach across a century to set us thinking, 
however superannuated his specific claims. 

We may give the last word to Jenkin, via Robert Louis Steven- 
son. One day as a young man, Stevenson reports, Fleeming Jen- 
kin argued bitterly with two young women about a pressing issue 
of Victorian hypermorality: Can a misdeed against moral codes 
ever be condoned, whatever the circumstances — stealing a knife 
to prevent a murder, for example? (Jenkin, to his credit, argued 
the affirmative.) As he left the house, his anger mellowed. He 
realized that even the most apparently peculiar belief deserves 
respect if argued honorably and if properly constructed upon a 
set of basic premises different from those usually cherished: 

From such passages-at-arms, many retire mortified and 
ruffled; but Fleeming had no sooner left the house than he 
fell into delighted admiration of the spirit of his adversaries. 
From that it was but a step to ask himself “what truth was 
sticking in their heads”; for even the falsest form of words 
(in Fleeming’s life-long opinion) reposed upon some truth. 


My parochialism and ignorance in the case of Fleeming Jenkin 
were even deeper than I had realized. Having corrected the most 
blatant omission of failing to recognize the importance of his 
mainline career in engineering, I discovered, after publishing this 
essay, that 1 had also missed a tangential foray equal in impor- 
tance to Jenkin’s critique of Darwin. Several professors of eco- 
nomics wrote to inform me that Jenkin had made cogent 
contributions to the “dismal science” as well. 

Robert B. Ekelund,Jr., of Auburn University, stated: 

Jenkin, an engineer by training, was the first English econo- 
mist to draw and clearly understand supply and demand 
curves, the most familiar staple in all of economics. In two 


amazing essays, published in 1868 and 1870, Jenkin devel- 
oped demand and supply theory, applied it to labor mar- 
kets, and introduced an innovative combination of stock 
and flow concepts for analyzing market fluctuations. 

Christopher Bell of Davidson College then sent me an article 
from Oxford Eco?iomics Papers (Volume 1 5, 1963) by A. D. Brownlie 
and M. F. Lloyd Prichard entitled “Professor Fleeming Jenkin, 
1833-1885, Pioneer in Engineering and Political Economy.” 
This fascinating article cites the opinion of the great economist 
J. A. Schumpeter (1883-1950), who regarded Jenkin as “an econ- 
omist of major importance, whose main papers . . . form an obvi- 
ous stepping stone between J. S. Mill and Marshall.” 

In a time of great industrial strife, and considerable opposition 
to trade unionism, Jenkin used his quantitative analysis of supply 
and demand to defend, as practical and necessary, the rights of 
workers to form associations for collective bargaining. He wrote 
that “the total abolition of trade unions is out of the question as 
impolitic, undeserved, and impossible . . . [But] we must insist 
that the great power granted to the bodies of workmen shall be 
administered under stringent regulations.” 

Jenkin, scarcely a radical in politics, favored no massive redis- 
tribution of wealth, but only some minor tinkering for greater 
satisfaction and productivity of workers. He wrote: “Great in- 
equality is necessary and desirable (observations seem to show 
that trade will extend faster with large profits and small wages 
than with small profits and large wages).” For, basically, Jenkin 
held firm to the ideals ol the laissez-faire system so strongly iden- 
tified with the intellectual history of his nation, particularly with 
Adam Smith in his own home city of Edinburgh. Jenkin wrote: 

We cannot deny that each man, acting rationally for his own 
advantage, will conduce to the good of all; and if the motive 
be not the highest, it is one which at least can always be 
counted on. 

Yet Jenkin tempered the harshness of pure laissez-faire with a 
realization that the central argument, practically applied by peo- 
ple in power, almost always acted as a rationale for unfairness 
toward workers. He wrote: 


They [laborers] think it monstrous that one of two parties to 
a bargain should be told to shut his eyes and open his hands 
and take the wages fixed by Political Economy, which alle- 
gorical personage looks very like an employer on pay day. 

A wonderful irony pervades all these themes, one that only an 
evolutionary biologist could fully identify and appreciate. Brown- 
lie and Lloyd Prichard point out that Jenkin’s economic writings 
were consigned to oblivion, largely because the two great opin- 
ion makers of later nineteenth-century English economics, Je- 
vons and Marshall, “treated him shabbily to say the least.” (Both 
Jevons and Marshall sensed that the “amateur” [enkin had antici- 
pated some of the “original” work that served as a basis of their 
own reputations. They therefore sought to disparage and dis- 
credit, and then to ignore, this gifted thinker, who did only lim- 
ited work in economics and did not really threaten their turf, or 
even their prestige, in any large sense — an act, all too characteris- 
tic, alas, of conventional academic ungenerosity.) 

Now, the irony: Jenkin was, basically, a proponent of the 
laissez-faire school. Darwin, as I have often argued in these es- 
says, established his central theory of natural selection bv import- 
ing the structure of Adam Smith’s economic arguments into 
nature (with organisms struggling for individual reproductive 
success as the analogue of “each man, acting rationally for his 
own advantage” in Jenkin’s quotation — and with organic prog- 
ress and balance of nature arising as a result, just as “the good of 
all” supposedly emerges from concatenated selfishness in Adam 
Smith’s system). How ironic then that Jenkin was belittled and 
disparaged for truly original work in the parent discipline of eco- 
nomics — but, thanks to Darwin’s greater geniality and sense of 
fairness, honored and acknowledged for similarly cogent contri- 
butions to a field that had so benefited, just a little before (in 1859 
when Darwin published the Origin), from generous consideration 
of economic theories. 

The Passion of Antoine 

Galileo and Lavoisier have more in common than 
their brilliance. Both men are focal points in a cardinal legend 
about the life of intellectuals — the conflict of lonely and revolu- 
tionary genius with state power. Both stories are apocryphal, 
however inspiring. Yet they only exaggerate, or encapsulate in 
the epitome of a bon mot, an essential theme in the history of 
thinking and its impact upon society. 

Galileo, on his knees before the Inquisition, abjures his hereti- 
cal belief that the earth revolves around a central sun. Yet, as he 
rises, brave Galileo, faithful to the highest truth of factuality, ad- 
dresses a stage whisper to the world: eppur se muove — neverthe- 
less, it does move. Lavoisier, before the revolutionary tribunal 
during the Reign of Terror in 1 794, accepts the inevitable verdict 
of death, but asks for a week or two to finish some experiments. 
Coffinhal, the young judge who has sealed his doom, denies his 
request, stating. La republique n 'a pas besoin de savants (the Republic 
does not need scientists). 

Coffinhal said no such thing, although the sentiments are not 
inconsistent with emotions unleashed in those frightening and all 
too frequent political episodes so well characterized by Marc An- 
tony in his lamentation over Caesar: “O judgment! thou are fled 
to brutish beasts. And men have lost their reason.” Lavoisier, 
who had been under arrest for months, was engaged in no experi- 
ments at the time. Moreover, as we shall see, the charges leading 
to his execution bore no relationship to his scientific work. 

But if Cofhnhal’s chilling remark is apocryphal, the second 
most famous quotation surrounding the death of Lavoisier is ac- 





d u 


Donn6 dans le Museum national d’Histoire naturelle , 
l’an IX de la Republique , 


Membre du Scuat, et de 1’Institnt national de France; Fun des 
Prol'esseurs du Museum d’Histoire naturelle ; membre de l’Institut 
national de Ja Republique Cisalpine; de la societe d’Anagon; de 
celle des Curieux de la Nature, de Beilin; des soeictes d’Histoire 
naturelle , des Pbannacicns , Philotccliuique , Philomatique , et des 
Observateurs de l’homme, de Paris; dc celle d’ Agriculture d’Ageu; 
de la sccidt^ des Sciences et Arts de Moutauban; du Lycee 
d’Alen^ou, etc. 





Title page for Lacepede’s opening and closing ad- 
dresses for the zoology course at the Natural History 
Museum in 1801-1802 — but identified only as “year 9 
of the Republic.” 

curate and well attested. The great mathematician Joseph Louis 
Lagrange, upon hearing the news about his friend’s execution, 
remarked bitterly: “It took them only an instant to cut off that 
head, but France may not produce another like it in a century.” 

The French revolution had been born in hope and expansive- 
ness. At the height of enthusiasm for new beginnings, the revolu- 
tionary government suppressed the old calendar, and started 
time all over again, with Year I beginning on September 22, 


1792, at the founding of the French republic. The months would 
no longer bear names of Roman gods or emperors, but would 
record the natural passage of seasons — as in brumaire (foggy), 
ventose (windy), germinal (budding), and to replace parts of July 
and August, originally named for two despotic caesars, thermidor. 
Measures would be rationalized, decimalized, and based on 
earthly physics, with the meter defined as one ten-millionth of 
a quarter meridian from pole to equator. The metric system is 
our enduring legacy of this revolutionary spirit, and Lavoisier 
himself played a guiding role in devising the new weights and 

But initial optimism soon unraveled under the realities of in- 
ternal dissension and external pressure. Governments tumbled 
one after the other, and Dr. Guillotin’s machine, invented to 
make execution more humane, became a symbol of terror by 
sheer frequency of public use. Louis XVI was beheaded in Janu- 
ary 1793 (Year I of the republic). Power shifted from the Giron- 
dins to the Montagnards, as the Terror reached its height and the 
war with Austria and Prussia continued. Finally, as so often hap- 
pens, the architect of the terror, Robespierre himself, paid his 
visit to Dr. Guillotin’s device, and the cycle played itself out. A 
few years later, in 1804, Napoleon was crowned as emperor, and 
the First Republic ended. Poor Lavoisier had been caught in the 
midst of the cycle, dying for his former role as tax collector on 
May 8, 1794, less than three months before the fall of Robes- 
pierre on July 27 (9 Thermidor, Year II). 

Old ideals often persist in vestigial forms of address and writ- 
ing, long after their disappearance in practice. I was reminded 
of this phenomenon when I acquired, a few months ago, a copy 
of the opening and closing addresses for the course in zoology 
at the Museum d’Histoire naturelle of Paris for 1801-1802. The 
democratic fervor of the revolution had faded, and Napoleon 
had already staged his coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 
1799), emerging as emperor de facto, although not crowned 
until 1804. Nonetheless, the author of these addresses, who 
would soon resume his full name Bernard-Germain-Etienne de 
la Ville-sur-Illon, comte de Lacepede, is identified on the title 
page only as C en Lacepede (for citoyen, or “citizen” — the demo- 
cratic form adopted by the revolution to abolish all distinctions 
of address). The long list of honors and memberships, printed 


in small type below Lacepede’s name, is almost a parody on the 
ancient forms; for instead of the old affiliations that always in- 
cluded “member of the royal academy of this or that” and 
“counsellor to the king or count of here or there,” Lacepede’s 
titles are rigorously egalitarian — including “one of the profes- 
sors at the museum of natural history,” and member of the soci- 
ety of pharmacists of Paris, and of agriculture of Agen. As for 
the year of publication, we have to know the history detailed 
above — for the publisher’s date is given, at the bottom, only as 
'Tan IX de la Republique.” 

Lacepede was one of the great natural historians in the golden 
age of French zoology during the late eighteenth and early nine- 
teenth centuries. His name may be overshadowed in retrospect 
by the illustrious quartet of Buffon, Lamarck, Geoffroy, and 
Cuvier, but Lacepede — who was chosen by Buffon to complete 
his life’s work, the multivolumed Histoire naturelle — deserves a 
place with these men, for all were citoyens of comparable merit. 
Although Lacepede supported the revolution in its moderate first 
phases, his noble title bred suspicion and he went into internal 
exile during the Terror. But the fall of Robespierre prompted his 
return to Paris, where his former colleagues persuaded the gov- 
ernment to establish a special chair for him at the Museum, as 
zoologist for reptiles and fishes. 

By tradition, the opening and closing addresses for the zoology 
course at the Museum were published in pamphlet form each 
year. The opening address for Year IX, “Sur l’histoire des races 
ou principales varietes de l’espece humaine” (On the history of 
races and principal varieties of the human species), is a typical 
statement of the liberality and optimism of Enlightenment 
thought. The races, we learn, may differ in current accomplish- 
ments, but all are capable of greater and equal achievement, and 
all can progress. 

But the bloom of hope had been withered by the Terror. Prog- 
ress, Lacepede asserts, is not guaranteed, but is possible only if 
untrammeled by the dark side of human venality. Memories of 
dire consequences for unpopular thoughts must have been fresh, 
for Lacepede cloaked his criticism of revolutionary excesses in 
careful speech and foreign attribution. Ostensibly, he was only 
describing the evils of the Indian caste system in a passage that 
must be read as a lament about the Reign of Terror: 


Hypocritical ambition, . . . abusing the credibility of the 
multitude, has conserved the ferocity of the savage state in 
the midst of the virtues of civilization. . . . After having 
reigned by terror [regne par la terreur], submitting even mon- 
archs to their authority, they reserved the domain of science 
and art to themselves [a reference, no doubt, to the sup- 
pression of the independent academies by the revolutionary 
government in 1 793, when Lacepede lost his first post at the 
Museum], and surrounded themselves with a veil of mystery 
that only they could lift. 

At the end of his address, Lacepede returns to the familiar 
theme of political excesses and makes a point, by no means origi- 
nal of course, that I regard as the central structural tragedy in the 
working of any complex system, including organisms and social 
institutions — the crushing asymmetry between the need for slow 
and painstaking construction and the potential for almost instan- 
taneous destruction: 

Thus, the passage from the semisavage state to civilization 
occurs through a great number of insensible stages, and 
requires an immense amount of time. In moving slowly 
through these successive stages, man fights painfully 
against his habits; he also battles with nature as he climbs, 
with great effort, up the long and perilous path. But it is not 
the same with the loss of the civilized state; this is almost 
sudden. In this morbid fall, man is thrown down by all his 
ancient tendencies; he struggles no longer, he gives up, he 
does not battle obstacles, he abandons himself to the bur- 
dens that surround him. Centuries are needed to nurture 
the tree of science and make it grow, but one blow from the 
hatchet of destruction cuts it down. 

The chilling final line, a gloss on Lagrange’s famous statement 
about the death of Lavoisier, inspired me to write about the 
founder of modern chemistry, and to think a bit more about the 
tragic asymmetry of creation and destruction. 

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, born in 1743, belonged to the no- 
bility through a title purchased by his father (standard practice 
for boosting the royal treasury during the ancien regime). As a 


leading liberal and rationalist of the Enlightenment (a movement 
that attracted much of the nobility, including many wealthy intel- 
lectuals who had purchased their titles to rise from the bourgeoi- 
sie), Lavoisier fitted an astounding array of social and scientific 
services into a life cut short by the headsman at age fifty-one. 

We know him best today as the chief founder of modern chem- 
istry. The textbook one-liners describe him as the discoverer (or 
at least the namer) of oxygen, the man who (though anticipated 
by Henry Cavendish in England) recognized water as a com- 
pound of the gases hydrogen and oxygen, and who correctly de- 
scribed combustion, not as the liberation of a hypothetical 

Lavoisier and his wife as painted by the great artist David, who later 
became a fervent supporter of the revolution, the metropolitan mu- 


substance called phlogiston, but as the combination of burning 
material with oxygen. But we can surely epitomize his contribu- 
tion more accurately by stating that Lavoisier set the basis for 
modern chemistry by recognizing the nature of elements and 
compounds — by finally dethroning the ancient taxonomy of air, 
water, earth, and fire as indivisible elements; by identifying gas, 
liquid, and solid as states of aggregation for a single substance 
subjected to different degrees of heat; and by developing quanti- 
tative methods for defining and identifying true elements. Such a 
brief statement can only rank as a caricature of Lavoisier’s scien- 
tific achievements, but this essay treats his other life in social 
service, and I must move on. 

Lavoisier, no shrinking violet in the game of self-promotion, 
openly spoke of his new chemistry as “a revolution.” He even 
published his major manifesto, Traite element aire de chimie, in 1789, 
starting date of the other revolution that would seal his fate. 

Lavoisier, liberal child of the Enlightenment, was no opponent 
of the political revolution, at least in its early days. He supported 
the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and joined the most mod- 
erate of the revolutionary societies, the Club of ’89. He served as 
an alternate delegate in the States General, took his turn as a 
citoyen at guard duty, and led several studies and commissions 
vital to the success of the revolution — including a long stint as 
regisseur des poudres (director of gunpowder, where his brilliant 
successes produced the best stock in Europe, thus providing sub- 
stantial help in France’s war against Austria and Prussia). He 
worked on financing the revolution by assignats (paper money 
backed largely by confiscated church lands), and he served on the 
commission of weights and measures that formulated the metric 
system. Lavoisier rendered these services to all governments, in- 
cluding the most radical, right to his death, even hoping at the 
end that his crucial work on weights and measures might save his 
life. Why, then, did Lavoisier end up in two pieces on the place de 
la Revolution (long ago renamed, in pleasant newspeak, place de la 
Concorde) ? 

The fateful move had been made in 1768, when Lavoisier 
joined the infamous Ferme Generale, or Tax Farm. If you regard 
the IRS as a less than benevolent institution, just consider taxa- 
tion under the ancien regime and count your blessings. Taxation 
was regressive with a vengeance, as the nobility and clergy were 


entirely exempt, and poor people supplied the bulk of the royal 
treasury through tariffs on the movement of goods across provin- 
cial boundaries, fees for entering the city of Paris, and taxes on 
such goods as tobacco and salt. (The hated gabelle, or “salt tax,” 
was applied at iniquitously differing rates from region to region, 
and was levied not on actual consumption but on presumed 
usage — thus, in effect, forcing each family to buy a certain quan- 
tity of taxed salt each year.) 

Moreover, the government did not collect taxes directly. They 
set the rates and then leased (for six-year periods) the privilege of 
collecting taxes to a private finance company, the Ferme Gene- 
rale. The Tax Farm operated for profit like any other private 
business. If they managed to collect more than the government 
levy, they kept the balance; if they failed to reach the quota, they 
took the loss. The system was not only oppressive in principle; it 
was also corrupt. Several shares in the Tax Farm were paid for no 
work as favors or bribes; many courtiers, even the king himself, 
were direct beneficiaries. Nonetheless, Lavoisier chose this enter- 
prise for the primary investment of his family fortune, and he 
became, as members of the firm were called, a fermier-general, or 

(Incidentally, since I hrst read the sad story of Lavoisier some 
twenty-five years ago, I have been amused by the term farmer- 
general, for it conjures up a pleasantly rustic image of a country 
yokel, dressed in his Osh Kosh b'Gosh overalls, and chewing on a 
stalk of hay while trying to collect the gabelle. But I have just 
learned from the Oxford English Dictionary that my image is not 
only wrong, but entirely backward. A farm, defined as a piece of 
agricultural land, is a derivative term. In usage dating to Chaucer, 
a farm, from the medieval Latin firma, “fixed payment,” is “a 
fixed yearly sum accepted from a person as a composition for 
taxes or other moneys which he is empowered to collect.” By 
extension, to farm is to lease anything for a fixed rent. Since most 
leases applied to land, agricultural plots become “farms,” with a 
hrst use in this sense traced only to the sixteenth century; the 
leasers of such land then became “farmers.” Thus, our modern 
phrase “farming out” records the original use, and has no agri- 
cultural connotation. And Lavoisier was a farmer-general in the 
true sense, with no mitigating image of bucolic innocence.) 

I do not understand why Lavoisier chose the Ferme Generale 


for his investment, and then worked so assiduously in his role as 
tax farmer. He was surely among the most scrupulous and fair- 
minded of the farmers, and might be justifiably called a reformer. 
(He opposed the overwatering of tobacco, a monopoly product 
of the Ferme, and he did, at least in later years, advocate taxation 
upon all, including the radical idea that nobles might pay as well.) 
But he took his profits, and he provoked no extensive campaign 
for reform as the money rolled in. The standard biographies, all 
too hagiographical, tend to argue that he regarded the Ferme as 
an investment that would combine greatest safety and return with 
minimal expenditure of effort — all done to secure a maximum of 
time for his beloved scientific work. But I do not see how this 
explanation can hold. Lavoisier, with his characteristic energy, 
plunged into the work of the Ferme, traveling all over the coun- 
try, for example, to inspect the tobacco industry. I rather suspect 
that Lavoisier, like many modern businessmen, simply jumped at 
a good and legal investment without asking too many ethical 

But the golden calf of one season becomes the shattered idol of 
another. The farmers-general were roundly hated, in part for 
genuine corruption and iniquity, in part because tax collectors 
are always scapegoated, especially when the national treasury is 
bankrupt and the people are starving. Lavoisier’s position was 
particularly precarious. As a scheme to prevent the loss of taxes 
from widespread smuggling of goods into Paris, Lavoisier ad- 
vocated the building of a wall around the city. Much to Lavoisier’s 
distress, the project, financed largely (and involuntarily) through 
taxes levied upon the people of Paris, became something of a 
boondoggle, as millions were spent on fancy ornamental gates. 
Parisians blamed (he wall for keeping in fetid air and spreading 
disease. The militant republican Jean-Paul Marat began a cam- 
paign of vilification against Lavoisier that only ended when Char- 
lotte Corday stabbed him to death in his bath. Marat had written 
several works in science and had hoped for election to the Royal 
Academy, then run by Lavoisier. But Lavoisier had exposed the 
emptiness of Marat’s work. Marat fumed, bided his time, and 
waited for the season when patriotism would become a good ref- 
uge for scoundrels. In January 1791, he launched his attack in 
l’ Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People ): 


I denounce you, Coryphaeus of charlatans, Sieur Lavoisier 
[coryphaeus, meaning highest, is the leader of the chorus in 
a classical Greek drama] Farmer-general, Commissioner of 
Gunpowders. . . . Just to think that this contemptible little 
man who enjoys an income of forty thousand livres has no 
other claim to fame than that of having put Paris in prison 
with a wall costing the poor thirty millions. . . . Would to 
heaven he had been strung up to the nearest lamppost. 

The breaching of the wall by the citizens of Paris on July 12, 
1789, was the prelude to the fall of the Bastille two days later. 

Lavoisier began to worry very early in the cycle. Less than 
seven months after the fall of the Bastille, he wrote to his old 
friend Benjamin Franklin: 

After telling you about what is happening in chemistry, it 
would be well to give you news of our Revolution. . . . Mod- 
erate-minded people, who have kept cool heads during the 
general excitement, think that events have carried us too far 
... we greatly regret your absence from France at this time; 
you would have been our guide and you would have marked 
out for us the limits beyond which we ought not to go. 

But these limits were breached, just as Lavoisier’s wall had 
fallen, and he could read the handwriting on the remnants. The 
Ferme Generale was suppressed in 1791, and Lavoisier played no 
further role in the complex sorting out of the farmers’ accounts. 
He tried to keep his nose clean with socially useful work on 
weights and measures and public education. But time was run- 
ning out for the farmers-general. The treasury was bankrupt, and 
many thought (quite incorrectly) that the iniquitously hoarded 
wealth of the farmers-general could replenish the nation. The 
farmers were too good a scapegoat to resist; they were arrested en 
masse in November 1793, commanded to put their accounts in 
order, and to reimburse the nation for any ill-gotten gains. 

The presumed offenses of the farmers-general were not capital 
under revolutionary law, and they hoped initially to win their 
personal freedom, even though their wealth and possessions 
might be confiscated. But they had the misfortune to be in the 
wrong place (jail) at the worst time (as the Terror intensified). 


Eventually, capital charges of counterrevolutionary activities 
were drummed up, and in a mock trial lasting only part of a day, 
the farmers-general were condemned to the guillotine. 

Lavoisier’s influential friends might have saved him, but none 
dared (or cared) to speak. The Terror was not so inexorable and 
efficient as tradition holds. Fourteen of the farmers-general 
managed to evade arrest, and one was saved by the intervention 
of Robespierre. Madame Lavoisier, who lived to a ripe old age, 
marrying and divorcing Count Rumford, and reestablishing one 
of the liveliest salons in Paris, never allowed any of these men 
over her doorstep again. One courageous (but uninfluential) 
group offered brave support in Lavoisier’s last hours. A deputa- 
tion from the Lycee des Arts came to the prison to honor 
Lavoisier and crown him with a wreath. We read in the minutes of 
that organization: “Brought to Lavoisier in irons, the consolation 
of friendship ... to crown the head about to go under the ax.” 

It is a peculiar attribute of human courage that when no option 
remains but death, criteria of judgment shift to the manner of 
dying. Chronicles of the revolution are filled with stories about 
who died with dignity — and who went screaming to the knife. 
Antoine Lavoisier died well. He wrote a last letter to his cousin, in 
apparent calm, not without humor, and with an intellectual’s faith 
in the supreme importance of mind. 

I have had a fairly long life, above all a very happy one, and I 
think that I shall he remembered with some regrets and 
perhaps leave some reputation behind me. What more 
could I ask? The events in which I am involved will probably 
save me from the troubles of old age. I shall die in full 
possession of my faculties. 

Lavoisier’s rehabilitation came almost as quickly as his death. 
In 1795, the Lycee des Arts held a first public memorial service, 
with Lagrange himself offering the eulogy and unveiling a bust of 
Lavoisier inscribed with the words: “Victim of tyranny, respected 
friend of the arts, he continues to live; through genius he still 
serves humanity.” Lavoisier’s spirit continued to inspire, but his 
head, once filled with great thoughts as numerous as the unwrit- 
ten symphonies of Mozart, lay severed in a common grave. 

Many people try to put a happy interpretation upon Lace- 


pede’s observation about the asymmetry of painstaking creation 
and instantaneous destruction. The collapse of systems, they 
argue, may be a prerequisite to any future episode of creativity — 
and the antidote, therefore, to stagnation. Taking the longest 
view, for example, mass extinctions do break up stable ecosys- 
tems and provoke episodes of novelty further down the evolu- 
tionary road. We would not be here today if the death of 
dinosaurs had not cleared some space for the burgeoning of 

I have no objection to this argument in its proper temporal 
perspective. If you choose a telescope and wish to peer into an 
evolutionary future millions of years away, then a current episode 
of destruction may be read as an ultimate spur. But if you care for 
the here and now, which is (after all) the only time we feel and 
have, then massive extinction is only a sadness and an opportu- 
nity lost forever. I have heard people argue that our current wave 
of extinctions should not inspire concern because the earth will 
eventually recover, as so oft before, and perhaps with pleasant 
novelty. But what can a conjecture about ten million years from 
now possibly mean to our lives — especially since we have the 
power to blow up our planet long before then, and rather little 
prospect, in any case, of surviving so long ourselves (since few 
vertebrate species live for 10 million years). 

The argument of the “long view” may be correct in some 
meaninglessly abstract sense, but it represents a fundamental 
mistake in categories and time scales. Our only legitimate long 
view extends to our children and our children’s children’s chil- 
dren — hundreds or a few thousands of years down the road. If we 
let the slaughter continue, they will share a bleak world with rats, 
dogs, cockroaches, pigeons, and mosquitoes. A potential recov- 
ery millions of years later has no meaning at our appropriate 
scale. Similarly, others could do the unfinished work of Lavoisier, 
if not so elegantly; and political revolution did spur science into 
some interesting channels. But how can this mitigate the tragedy 
of Lavoisier? He was one of the most brilliant men ever to grace 
our history, and he died at the height of his powers and health. 
He had work to do, and he was not guilty. 

My title, “The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier,” is a double en- 
tendre. The modern meaning of passion, “overmastering zeal or 
enthusiasm,” is a latecomer. The word entered our language 


from the Latin verb for suffering, particularly for suffering physi- 
cal pain. The Saint Matthew and Saintjohn Passions ofj. S. Bach 
are musical dramas about the suffering ofjesus on the cross. This 
essay, therefore, focuses upon the final and literal passion of 
Lavoisier. (Anyone who has ever been disappointed in love — that 
is, nearly all of us — will understand the intimate connection be- 
tween the two meanings of passion.) 

But I also wanted to emphasize Lavoisier’s passion in the mod- 
ern meaning. For this supremely organized man — farmer-gen- 
eral; commissioner of gunpowder; wall builder; reformer of 
prisons, hospitals, and schools; legislative representative for the 
nobility of Blois; father of the metric system; servant on a hun- 
dred government committees — really had but one passion amidst 
this burden of activities for a thousand lifetimes. Lavoisier loved 
science more than anything else. He awoke at six in the morning 
and worked on science until eight, then again at night from seven 
until ten. He devoted one full day a week to scientific experiments 
and called it his jour de bonheur (day of happiness). The letters and 
reports of his last year are painful to read, for Lavoisier never 
abandoned his passion — his conviction that reason and science 
must guide any just and effective social order. But those who 
received his pleas, and held power over him, had heard the dif- 
ferent drummer of despotism. 

Lavoisier was right in the deepest, almost holy, way. His pas- 
sion harnessed feeling to the service of reason; another kind of 
passion was the price. Reason cannot save us and can even perse- 
cute us in the wrong hands; but we have no hope of salvation 
without reason. The world is too complex, too intransigent; we 
cannot bend it to our simple will. Bernard Lacepede was proba- 
bly thinking of Lavoisier when he wrote a closing flourish follow- 
ing his passage on the great asymmetry of slow creation and 
sudden destruction: 

Ah! Never forget that we can only stave off that fatal degra- 
dation if we unite the liberal arts, which embody the sacred 
fire of sensibility, with the sciences and the useful arts, with- 
out which the celestial light of reason will disappear. 

The Republic needs scientists. 

The Godfather of 

Lemuel gulliver, marooned by pirates on a small 
Pacific island, lamented his apparently inevitable fate: “I consid- 
ered how impossible it was to preserve my life, in so desolate a 
place; and how miserable my end must be.” But then the floating 
island of Laputa appeared and he rode up on a chain to safety. 

The Laputans, Gulliver soon discovered, were an odd lot, with 
an ethereal turn of mind well suited to their abode. Their 
thoughts, he noted, “are so taken up with intense speculation” 
that they can neither speak nor hear the words of others unless 
explicitly roused. Thus, each Laputan of status employs a “flap- 
per” who gently strikes the ear or mouth of his master with an 
inflated bladder full of small pebbles whenever his lordship must 
either attend or answer. 

The Laputans are not catholic in their distractions; only music 
and mathematics incite their unworldly concentration. Gulliver 
finds that their mathematical obsession extends to all spheres of 
life; he obtains for his first meal “a shoulder of mutton, cut into 
an equilateral triangle; a piece of beef into rhomboides; and a 
pudding into a cycloid.” 

But mathematics has its negative side, at least psychologically. 
The Laputans are not lost in a blissful reverie about the perfec- 
tion of circles or the infinitude of pi. They are scared. Their calcu- 
lations have taught them that “the earth very narrowly escaped a 
brush from the tail of the last comet . . . and that the next, which 
they have calculated for one and thirty years hence, will probably 
destroy [them].” The Laputans live in fear: “When they meet an 
acquaintance in the morning, the first question is about the sun’s 



health; how he looked at his setting and rising, and what hopes 
they have to avoid the stroke of the approaching comet.” 

Jonathan Swift, as usual, was not writing abstract humor in 
reciting the Laputans’ fear of comets. He was satirizing the influ- 
ential theory of a political and religious enemy, William Whiston, 
handpicked successor to Isaac Newton as Lucasian Professor of 
Mathematics at Cambridge. In 1696, Whiston had published the 
first edition of a work destined for scientific immortality of the 
worst sort — as a primer of how not to proceed. W'histon called his 
treatise A New Theory of the Earth from its Original to the Consummation 
of all Things, Wherein the Creation of the World in Six Days, the Universal 
Deluge, and the General Conflagration, as laid down in the Holy Scrip- 
tures, are shewn to be perfectly agreeable to Reason and Philosophy. 

Whiston has descended through history as the worst example 
of religious superstition viewed as an impediment to science. 
Whiston, we are told, was so wed to the few thousand years of 
Moses’ chronology that he had to postulate absurd catastrophes 
via cometary collisions in order to encompass the earth's history 
in so short a time. This dismissal is no modern gloss but an old 
tradition in scientific rhetoric. Charles Lyell, conventional father 
of modernity in geological thought, poured contempt upon 
Whiston’s extraterrestrial and catastrophic theories because they 
foreclosed proper attention to gradual, earth-based causes. Lyell 
wrote in 1830: 

[Whiston] retarded the progress of truth, diverting men 
from the investigation of the laws of sublunary nature, and 
inducing them to waste time in speculations on the power of 
comets to drag the waters of the ocean over the land — on 
the condensation of the vapors of their tails into water, and 
other matters equally edifying. 

But Whiston did not only suffer the abuse of posthumous repu- 
tation; he became an object of ridicule in his ow n time as well (as 
Swift’s satire indicates). His contemporary troubles did not stem 
from his cometary theory (which resembled several others of his 
day and did not strike fellow intellectuals as outre) but from his 
religious heterodoxies. Whiston’s public support of the Arian 
heresy (a denial of the Trinity, and the consubstantiality of Christ 
with God the Father) led to dismissal from his Cambridge profes- 


sorship (as Newton, his erstwhile champion, and a quieter, more 
measured exponent of the same heresy, remained conspicuously 
silent). Resettled in London, Whiston was tried twice for heresy 
and, though not formally convicted, lost most of his previous 
prestige and lived the rest of his long life (he died in 1752 at the 
age of eighty-four) as an independent intellectual, viewed as a 
prophet by some and as a crank by most. In the eighth plate of 
Hogarth’s The Rake's Progress , set in the mental hospital of Bed- 
lam, an inmate covers the wall with a sketch of Whiston’s scheme 
for measuring longitude. 

Despite continual rejection of Whiston, from his own time to 
ours, we must still grant him a major role in the history of science. 
The French historian Jacques Roger ended his article on Whiston 
(in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography) with these words: 

His writings were much disputed but also widely read 
throughout the eighteenth century, and not just in England. 
For example, Buffon, who summarized Whiston’s theory in 
order to ridicule it, borrowed more from him than he was 
willing to admit. ... It may be said that all the cosmogonies 
based on the impact of celestial bodies, including that of 
Jeans, owed something, directly or indirectly, to Whiston’s 

Moreover, we must not forget the early acclaim of his contem- 
poraries. The greatest figure in all the history of science, Isaac 
Newton, personally chose Whiston as his successor. In my copy 
of Whiston’s New Theory (the second edition of 1708), a Mr. Na- 
thaniel Hancock, who bought the book in 1723, has inscribed on 
its title page, in a beautiful, flowing hand, the following judgment 
of Whiston and his book by John Locke: 

I have not heard any one of my acquaintance speak of it, but 
with great commendations (as I think it deserves). . . . He is 
one of those sort of writers that I always fancy should be 
most encouraged; I am always for the builders. 

Comets were in the air in late seventeenth century Britain. In 
1680, a great comet brightened the skies of Europe, followed two 
years later by a smaller object that sent Edmond Halley to the 


drawing boards of history and mathematics. Moreover, the sev- 
enteenth century had been a time of extraordinary change and 
tension in Britain — the execution of Charles I, Cromwell's Pro- 
tectorate, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution to men- 
tion just a few of the tumultuous events of Whiston’s age. These 
happenings fostered a revival of millennial thought — a scrutiny 
of the prophecies in Daniel and Revelation, leading to a conclu- 
sion that the end of this world lay in sight, and that the blessed 
millennium, or thousand-year reign of Christ, would soon begin. 
Since comets had long been viewed as harbingers or signals of 
great transitions and disasters (literally, “evil stars”), Whiston 
chose a propitious time to implicate comets as the prime movers 
of our planet’s history. 

Whiston’s New Theory tried, above all, to establish a consistency 
between the two great sources of truth, as defined by his country- 
men: the infallibility of Scripture and the mathematical beauty of 
the cosmos, so recently revealed by Newton. Whiston began his 
account of our planet’s history by summarizing his method of 
inquiry in a single page, entitled Postulata. The first two state- 
ments illustrate his attempt to join Moses with Newton: 

1 . The obvious or literal sense of scripture is the true and 
real one, where no evident reason can be given to the con- 

2. That which is clearly accountable in a natural way, is 
not, without reason, to be ascribed to a Miraculous Power. 

Comets became Whiston’s deus ex machina for rendering the cata- 
clysmic events of Genesis with the forces of Newton’s universe. 

Consider Whiston’s descriptions of the earth, from cradle to 
grave, with each of its five principal events tied to cometary 

1 . The Hexameron, or Moses ’ six days of creation. Whiston prefaced 
the body of his work with a ninety-four-page “Discourse Con- 
cerning the Nature, Stile, and Extent of the Mosaick History of 
the Creation.” Here, he attempts to preserve the literal sense of 
Scripture (first postulate above) in the light of Newton’s nearly 
infinite universe. How could all this vastness be made in six days, 
and how could our earth, one tiny speck in one corner of the 
cosmos, be the focus of such infinitude? Whiston devotes his 


preface to a single argument: Moses described the origin of the 
earth alone, not the entire universe; moreover, he tailored his 
words to describe not the abstract properties of nature’s laws, but 
the visual appearance of events as an untutored observer might 
have witnessed them on the congealing surface of our planet. 
With these provisos, everything happened exactly as Genesis 

The earth began as a comet, and the chaos described in Gene- 
sis 1 (“and the earth was without form and void”) represents the 
original swirling atmosphere. Whiston’s contemporaries did not 
know the true size of comets, and many assumed, as he did, that 
comets might be of planetary dimensions, and therefore suitable 
for transformation into a planet. Whiston wrote; 

Tis very reasonable to believe, that a planet is a comet 
formed into a regular and lasting constitution, and placed at 
a proper distance from the sun . . . and a comet is a chaos, 
i.e., a planet unformed or in its primaeval state, placed in a 
very eccentrical [orbit]. 

To transform this comet, with its highly elliptical pathway, into 
a planet, God needs to render its orbit more nearly circular. The 
chaotic atmosphere will then clear and precipitate to form the 
solid surface of a planet. Whiston’s attitude toward miracles 
(temporary suspension by God of his own natural laws) remained 
ambiguous. His second postulate stated a preference for natural 
explanations, but only when possible. He never did resolve 
whether the change in orbit that converted our cometary ances- 
tor into the present earth had been a true miracle (accomplished 
by the immediate agency of God’s own hand) or a natural event 
(the result of gravitational influences exerted by another body 
moving through the heavens according to Newton’s laws). But 
since Newton’s laws are God’s laws, Whiston attached only lim- 
ited importance to the distinction — for the transition from comet 
to planet occurred either by God’s direct action or by laws that 
God had established in full knowledge of the later, desired result. 

In any case, once the comet’s orbit had been adjusted to its 
planetary pathway, the events of Genesis 1 would proceed natu- 
rally, as viewed by an observer on earth. The creation of light on 
the first day represents an initial clarification of a formerly 


opaque atmosphere (so that a brightness always present could 
finally be perceived). Similarly, the “creation” of the sun and 
moon records a further lightening of atmosphere. 

This fourth day is therefore the very time when . . . these 
heavenly bodies, which were in being before, but so as to be 
wholly strangers to a spectator on earth, were rendered visi- 

Meanwhile, the products of this former atmosphere settled out 
by order of density into a series of concentric layers — solid at the 
center, water above, and a solid froth on top — to form the earth. 

If all this activity still seems a bit much to compress into a mere 
six days, Whiston added an argument to increase our confidence. 
The original earth underwent no diurnal rotation on its axis but 
maintained a constant position as it revolved around the sun. The 
nearly equatorial Eden therefore experienced a year divided into 
halves: one of day; the second of night. Since we define a “day” as 
a single alternation of light and darkness, the days of Genesis 1 
were all a year long — not a vast span for the work accomplished, 
but a big step in the right direction. 

2. The Fall, and expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. The pristine 
earth stood bolt upright with no seasons, tides, or winds to dis- 
turb its primeval bliss. But “as soon as Man had sinned . . . and as 
God Almighty had pronounced a curse on the ground, and its 
production, presently the earth began a new and strange motion, 
and revolved from west to east on its own axis.” This axis tilted to 
its present inclination of some 2 1 degrees, and the earth began its 
diurnal rotation, with days, nights, winds, and seasons. Whiston 
ascribed this change to a cometary collision: 

Now the only assignable cause is that of the impulse of a 
comet with little or no atmosphere, or of a central solid 
hitting obliquely upon the earth along some parts of its 
present equator. 

3. Noah ’s flood. All the great works of this late seventeenth cen- 
tury vogue for “theories of the earth” (notably Burnet’s Sacred 
Theory of the Earth and Woodward’s Essay Towards a Natural History 
of the Earth) regarded an explanation of the Deluge as their cen- 


tral test and focus. Events of the Creation were too distant and 
shrouded in mystery, phenomena of the coming millennium too 
tentative. But the Flood was a relatively recent incident, begun 
(or so Whiston deduced) precisely “on the 17th day of the 2nd 
month from the autumnal equinox ... in the 2349th year before 
the Christian era.” Any proper theory of the earth must, above 
all, render this cardinal and precisely specified event of a history 
remembered and recorded in the ancient chronicles. 

The comet that unleashed the Flood did not strike the earth 
directly but passed close enough for two great effects that com- 
bined to produce the Deluge. First, the earth passed (for about 
two hours) directly through the “vaporous tail” of the comet, 
thus absorbing by gravity enough water to unleash forty days and 
nights of rain. Second, the tides generated by close passage of 
such an enormous body stretched the round earth into an oblate 
spheroid and eventually cracked the solid surface, allowing the 
underlying layer of water to rise and contribute to the great flood 
(Genesis, remember, speaks not only of rain from above, but also 
of upwelling from the “fountains of the deep”). 

(In a rather uncomfortable bit of special pleading, even in his 
own terms, Whiston argued that the cometary impact at the Fall 
had not unleashed a similar flood because this previous comet 
had no atmosphere. If we then ask why this earlier impact, more 
direct after all than the near miss that made the Flood, did not 
tear the surface and raise the waters from the abyss, Whiston 
responds that such a fracturing requires not only the gravita- 
tional force of the comet itself but also the pressing weight of 
waters from its tail.) 

Above all, Whiston took delight in his cometary theory because 
it had resolved this cardinal event in our history as a consequence 
of nature’s divinely appointed laws, and had thereby removed the 
need for a special, directly miraculous explanation: 

Whatever difficulties may hitherto have rendered this most 
noted catastrophe of the old world, that it was destroyed by 
waters, very hard, if not wholly inexplicable without an Om- 
nipotent Power, and Miraculous Interposition: since the 
theory of comets, with their atmospheres and tails is discov- 
ered, they must vanish of their own accord. . . . We shall 
easily see that a deluge of waters is by no means an impossi- 


Cometary action as illustrated by Whiston in 1696. A passing 
comet (large object in the center) induces Noah’s flood. The 
earth (upper right), entering the comet's tail, will receive its 40 
days and nights of rain. The comet’s gravity is stretching the 
earth into a spheroid. Under this gravitational tug, the earth's 
outer surface will soon crack, releasing water from below (the 
light, middle layer) to contribute to the deluge. 


ble thing; and in particular that such an individual deluge 
. . . which Moses describes, is no more so, but fully account- 
able that it might be, nay almost demonstrable that it really 

4. The coming conflagration. The prophetic books of Daniel and 
Revelation speak of a worldwide fire that will destroy the current 
earth, but in a purifying way that will usher in the millennium. 
Whiston proposed (as the Laputans feared) that a comet would 
instigate this conflagration for a set of coordinated reasons. This 
comet would strip off the earth's cooling atmosphere, raise the 
molten material at the earth’s core, and contribute its own fiery 
heat. Moreover, the passage of this comet would slow the earth’s 
rotation, thus initiating an orbit so elliptical that the point of 
closest approach to the sun would be sufficient to ignite our 
planet’s surface. Thus, Whiston writes, “the theory of comets” 
can provide “almost as commensurate and complete an account 
of the future burning, as it already has done of the ancient drown- 
ing of the earth.” 

5. The consummation. As prophecy relates, the thousand-year 
reign of Christ will terminate with a final battle between the just 
and the forces of evil led by the giants Gog and Magog. Thereaf- 
ter, the bodies of the just shall ascend to heaven, those of the 
damned shall sink in the other direction — and the earth’s ap- 
pointed role shall be over. This time a comet shall make a direct 
hit — no more glancing blows for diurnal rotation or near misses 
for Hoods — and knock the earth either clear out of the solar sys- 
tem or into an orbit so elliptical that it will become, as it was in the 
beginning, a comet. 

Our conventional, modern reading of Whiston as an impedi- 
ment to true science arises not only from the fatuous character of 
this particular reconstruction but also, and primarily, from our 
recognition that Whiston invoked the laws of nature only to vali- 
date a predetermined goal — the rendering of biblical history — 
and not, as modern ideals proclaim, to chart with objectivity, and 
without preconception, the workings of the universe. Consider, 
for example, Whiston’s reverie on how God established the laws 
of nature so that a comet would instigate a flood just when human 
wickedness deserved such a calamity. 


That Omniscient Being, who foresaw when the degeneracy 
of human nature would be arrived at an unsufferable degree 
of wickedness . . . and when consequently his vengeance 
ought to fall upon them; predisposed and preadapted the 
orbits and motions of both the comet and the earth, so that 
at the very time, and only at that time, the former should 
pass close by the latter and bring that dreadful punishment 
upon them. 

Yet such an assessment of Whiston seems singularly unfair and 
anachronistic. How can we justify a judgment of modern taxono- 
mies that didn't exist in the seventeenth century? We dismiss 
Whiston because he violated ideals of science as we now define 
the term. But, in Whiston’s time, science did not exist as a sepa- 
rate domain of inquiry; the word itself had not been coined. No 
matter how we may view such an enterprise today, Whiston’s 
mixture of natural events and scriptural traditions defined a pri- 
mary domain at the forefront of scholarship in his time. We have 
since defined Whiston’s New Theory as a treatise in the history of 
science because we remain intrigued with his use of astronomical 
arguments but have largely lost both context for and interest in 
his exegesis of millennarian prophecy. But Whiston would not 
have accepted such a categorization; he would not even have rec- 
ognized our concerns and divisions. He did not view his effort as 
a work of science, but as a treatise in an important contemporary 
tradition for using all domains of knowledge — revelations of 
Scripture, history of ancient chronicles, and knowledge of na- 
ture’s laws — to reconstruct the story of human life on our planet. 
The New Theory contains — and by Whiston’s explicit design — far 
more material on theological principles and biblical exegesis 
than on anything that would now pass muster as science. 

Moreover, although Whiston later achieved a reputation as a 
crank in his own time, he wrote the New Theory at the height of his 
conventional acceptability. He showed the manuscript to Chris- 
topher Wren and won the hearty approval of this greatest among 
human architects. He then gave (and eventually dedicated) the 
work to Newton himself, and so impressed Mr. Numero Uno in 
our current pantheon of scientific heroes that he ended up as 
Newton’s handpicked successor at Cambridge. 

In fact, Whiston’s arguments in the New Theory are neither mar- 


ginal nor oracular, but preeminently Newtonian in both spirit 
and substance. In reading the New Theory, I was particularly 
struck by a feature of organization, a conceit really, that most 
commentators pass over. Whiston ordered his book in a manner 
that strikes us as peculiar (and ultimately quite repetitious). He 
presents the entire argument as though it could be laid out in a 
mathematical and logical framework, combining sure knowledge 
of nature’s laws with clear strictures of a known history in order 
to deduce the necessity of cometary action as a primary cause. 

Whiston begins with the page of Postulata, or general principles 
of explanation cited previously. He then lists eighty-five “lem- 
mata,” or secondary postulates derived directly from laws of na- 
ture. The third section discusses eleven “hypotheses” — not 
“tentative explanations” in the usual, modern sense of the word, 
but known facts of history assumed beforehand and used as terms 
in later deductions. Whiston then pretends that he can combine 
these lemmas and facts to deduce the proper explanation of our 
planet’s history. The next section lists 101 “phaenomena,” or 
particular facts that require explanation. The final chapter on 
“solutions” runs through these facts again to supply cometary 
(and other) explanations based on the lemmas and hypotheses. 
(Whiston then ends the book with four pages of “corollaries” 
extolling God’s power and scriptural authority.) 

I call this organization a conceit because it bears the form, but 
not the substance, of deductive necessity. The lemmas are not an 
impartial account of consequences from Newton’s laws but a tai- 
lored list designed beforehand to yield the desired results. The 
hypotheses are not historical facts in the usual sense of verified, 
direct observations but inferences based on a style of biblical 
exegesis not universally followed even in Whiston’s time. The 
solutions are not deductive necessities but possible readings that 
do not include other alternatives (even if one accepts the lemmas 
and hypotheses). 

Still, we must not view Whiston’s New Theory as a caricature of 
Newtonian methodology (if only from the direct evidence that 
Newton himself greatly admired the book). The Newton of our 
pantheon is a sanitized and modernized version of the man him- 
self, as abstracted from his own time for the sake of glory, as 
Whiston has been for the sake of infamy. Newton’s thinking com- 
bined the same interests in physics and prophecy, although an 


almost conspiratorial silence among scholars has, until recently, 
foreclosed discussion of Newton’s voluminous religious writings, 
most of which remain unpublished. ( James Force’s excellent 
study, William Whiston, Honest Newtonian, 1985, should be con- 
sulted on this issue.) Newton and Whiston were soul mates, not 
master and jester. Whiston’s perceived oddities arose directly 
from his Newtonian convictions and his attempt to use New- 
tonian methods (in both scientific and religious argument) to re- 
solve the earth’s history. 

I have, over the years, written many essays to defend maligned 
figures in the traditional history of science. I usually proceed, as I 
have so far with Whiston, by trying to place an unfairly deni- 
grated man into his own time and to analyze the power and inter- 
est of his arguments in their own terms. I have usually held that 
judgment by modern standards is the pitfall that led to our previ- 
ous, arrogant dismissal— and that we should suppress our tend- 
ency to justify modern interest by current relevance. 

Yet I would also hold that old arguments can retain a special 
meaning and importance for modern scientific debates. Some 
issues are so broad and general that they transcend all social 
contexts to emerge as guiding themes in scientific arguments 
across the centuries (see my book Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle for 
such a discussion about metaphors of linear and cyclical time in 
geology). In these situations, old versions can clarify and instruct 
our current research because they allow us to tease out the gener- 
ality from its overlay of modern prejudices and to grasp the guid- 
ing power of a primary theme through its application to a past 
world that we can treat more abstractly, and without personal 

Whiston’s basic argument about comets possesses this charac- 
ter of instructive generality. We must acknowledge, first of all. 
the overt and immediate fact that one of the most exciting items 
in contemporary science — the theory of mass extinction by extra- 
terrestrial impact — calls upon the same agency (some versions 
even cite comets as the impacting bodies). Evidence continues to 
accumulate for the hypothesis that a large extraterrestrial object 
struck the earth some 65 million years ago and triggered, or at 
least greatly promoted, the late Cretaceous mass extinction (the 
sine qua non of our own existence, since the death of dinosaurs 


cleared ecological space for the evolution of large mammals). 
Intensive research is now under way to test the generality of this 
claim by searching for evidence of similar impacts during other 
episodes of mass extinction. We await the results with eager an- 

But theories of mass extinction do not provide the main rea- 
son why we should pay attention to Whiston today. After all, 
the similarities may be only superficial: Whiston made a conjec- 
ture to render millennarian prophecy; the modern theory has 
mustered some surprising facts to explain an ancient extinction. 
Guessing right for the wrong reason does not merit scientific 
immortality. No, I commend Whiston to modern attention for a 
different and more general cause — because the form and struc- 
ture of his general argument embody a powerful abstraction 
that we need to grasp today in our search to understand the roles 
of stability, gradual change, and catastrophe in the sciences of 

Whiston turned to comets for an interesting reason rooted in 
his Newtonian perspective, not capriciously as an easy way out for 
the salvation of Moses. Scientists who work with the data of his- 
tory must, above all, develop general theories about how sub- 
stantial change can occur in a universe governed by invariant 
natural laws. In Newton’s (and Whiston’s) world view, imma- 
nence and stability are the usual consequences of nature’s laws: 
The cosmos does not age or progress anywhere. Therefore, if 
substantial changes did occur, they must be rendered by rapid 
and unusual events that, from time to time, interrupt the ordinary 
world of stable structure. In other words, Whiston’s catastrophic 
theory of change arose primarily from his belief in the general 
stability of nature. Change must be an infrequent fracture or rup- 
ture. He wrote: 

We know no other natural causes that can produce any 
great and general changes in our sublunary world, but such 
bodies as can approach to the earth, or, in other words, but 

A major intellectual movement began about a century after 
Whiston wrote and has persisted to become the dominant ideol- 


of our day. Whiston s notion of stability as the ordinary state 
of things yielded to the grand idea that change is intrinsic to the 
workings of nature. The poet Robert Burns wrote: 

Look abroad through nature’s range 
Nature’s mighty law is change. 

This alternative idea of gradual and progressive change as in- 
herent in nature’s ways marked a major reform in scientific think- 
ing and led to such powerful theories as Lyellian geology and 
Darwinian evolution. But this notion of slow, intrinsic alteration 
also established an unfortunate dogma that fostered an amnesia 
about other legitimate styles of change and often still leads us to 
restrict our hypotheses to one favored style falsely viewed as pref- 
erable (or even true) a priori. For example, the New York Times 
recently suggested that impact theories be disregarded on gen- 
eral principles: 

Terrestrial events, like volcanic activity or change in climate 
or sea level, are the most immediate possible cause of mass 
extinctions. Astronomers should leave to astrologers the 
task of seeking the causes of earthly events in the stars [edi- 
torial, April 2, 1985], 

Perhaps they will now grant this paleontologist equal power of 
judgment over their next price increase. 

The world is too complex for subsumption under any general 
theory of change. Whiston’s model of stability, punctuated now 
and then by changes of great magnitude that induce new steady 
states, did not possess the generality that he or Newton sup- 
posed. But neither does Lyellian gradualism explain the entire 
course of our planet s history (and Lyell will have to eat his words 
about W histon, just as the editors of the Times must now feast on 
theirs about the theory of mass extinction by extraterrestrial im- 
pact). Whiston’s general style of argument— change as an inter- 
ruption of usual stability — is on the ascendancy again as a worthy 
alternative to a way of thinking that has become too familiar, too 

On the wall of Preservation Hall in New Orleans hangs a tat- 
tered and greasy sign, but the most incisive I have ever seen. It 


gives a price scale for requests by the audience to the aged men of 
the band who play jazz in the old style: 

Traditional Requests $1 



The Saints 

Preservation Hall guards against too frequent repetition of the 
most familiar with the usual currency of our culture — currency 
itself. Scholars must seek other, more active tactics. We must 
have gadflies — and historical figures may do posthumous ser- 
vice — to remind us constantly that our usual preferences, chan- 
nels, and biases are not inevitable modes of thought. I nominate 
William Whiston to the first rank of reminders as godfather to 
punctuational theories of change in geology. 

Funny, isn’t it? Whiston longed “to be in that number, when 
the Saints go marching in”; in fact, he wrote the New Theory 
largely to suggest that cometary impact would soon usher in this 
blessed millenium. Yet he is now a soul mate to those who wish to 
hear a different drummer. 

and Creation 

Knight Takes Bishop? 

I have not the slightest doubt (hat truth pos- 
sesses inestimable moral value. In addition, as Mr. Nixon once 
found to his sorrow, truth represents the only way to keep a com- 
plex story straight, for no one can remember all the details of 
when he told what to whom unless his words have an anchor in 
actual occurrence. 

Oh, what a tangled web we weave. 

When first we practice to deceive! 

Yet, for a scholar, there is nothing quite like falsehood. Lies are 
pinpoints — identifiable historical events that can be traced. False- 
hoods also have motivations — points of departure for our rumi- 
nations on the human animal. Truth, on (he other hand, simply 
happens. Its accurate report teaches us little beyond the event 

In this light, we should note with interest that the most famous 
story in all the hagiography of evolution is, if not false outright, at 
least grossly distorted by biased reconstruction long after the 
fact. I speak of Thomas Henry Huxley’s legendary encounter 
with the bishop of Oxford, “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, at the 1860 
meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Sci- 
ence, held in His Lordship’s own see. 

Darwin had published the Origin of Species in November 1859. 
Thus, when the British Association for the Advancement of Sci- 
ence met at Oxford in the summer of 1860, this greatest of all 
debates received its first prominent public airing. On Saturday, 



June 30, more than 700 people wedged themselves into the larg- 
est room of Oxford’s Zoological Museum to hear what was, by all 
accounts, a perfectly dreadful hour-long peroration by an Ameri- 
can scholar, Dr. Draper, on the “intellectual development of 
Europe considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin.” 
Leonard Huxley wrote, in Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley: 

The room was crowded to suffocation. . . . The very win- 
dows by which the room was lighted down the length of its 
west side were packed with ladies, whose white handker- 
chiefs, waving and fluttering in the air at the end of the 
Bishop’s speech, were an unforgettable factor in the accla- 
mation of the crowd. 

The throng, as Leonard Huxley notes, had not come to hear 
Dr. Draper drone on about Europe. Word bad circulated widely 
that “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the silver-tongued bishop of Ox- 
ford, would attend with the avowed purpose of smashing Mr. 
Darwin in the discussion to follow Draper’s paper. 

The story of W’ilberforce’s oration and Huxley’s rejoinder has 
been enshrined among the half-dozen greatest legends of sci- 
ence — surely equal to Newton beaned by an apple or Archimedes 
jumping from his bath and shouting “Eureka!” through the 
streets of Syracuse. We have read the tale from comic book to 
novel to scholarly tome. We have viewed the scene, courtesy of 
the BBC, in our living rooms. The story has an “official version” 
codified by Darwin’s son Francis, published in his Life and Letters of 
Charles Darwin, and expanded in Leonard Huxley’s biography of 
his father. This reconstruction has become canonical, copied 
from source to later source hundreds of times, and rarely altered 
even by jot or tittle. Consider just one of countless retellings, 
chosen as an average and faithful version (from Ruth Moore’s 
Charles Darwin, Hutchinson, 1957): 

For half an hour the Bishop spoke savagely ridiculing Dar- 
win and Huxley, and then he turned to Huxley, who sat with 
him on the platform. In tones icy with sarcasm he put his 
famous question: was it through his grandfather or his 
grandmother that he claimed descent from an ape? ... At 
the Bishop’s question, Huxley had clapped the knee of the 


surprised scientist beside him and whispered: “The Lord 
hath delivered him into mine hands.” . . . [Huxley] tore into 
the arguments Wilberforce had used. . . . Working himself 
up to his climax, he shouted that he would feel no shame in 
having an ape as an ancestor, but that he would be ashamed 
of a brilliant man who plunged into scientific questions of 
which he knew nothing. In effect, Huxley said that he would 
prefer an ape to the Bishop as an ancestor, and the crowd 
had no doubt of his meaning. 

The room dissolved into an uproar. Men jumped to their 
feet, shouting at this direct insult to the clergy. Lady 
Brewster fainted. Admiral Fitzroy, the former Captain of 
the Beagle, waved a Bible aloft, shouting over the tumult 
that it, rather than the viper he had harbored in his ship, was 
the true and unimpeachable authority. . . . 

The issue had been joined. From that hour on, the quar- 
rel over the elemental issue that the world believed was 
involved, science versus religion, was to rage unabated. 

We may fist as the key, rarely challenged features of this official 
version the following claims: 

1 . Wilberforce directly bearded and taunted Huxley by point- 
edly asking, in sarcastic ridicule, whether he claimed descent 
from an ape on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side. 

2. Huxley, before rising to the challenge, mumbled his famous 
mock-ecclesiastical sarcasm about the Lord’s aid in his coming 
rhetorical victory. 

3. Huxley than responded to Wilberforce’s arguments in loud, 
clear, and forceful tones. 

4. Fluxley ended his speech with a devastatingly effective parry 
to the bishop’s taunt. 

5. Although Huxley said only that he would prefer an ape to a 
man who used skills of oratory to obfuscate rather than to seek 
truth, many took him to mean (and some thought he had said) 
that he would prefer an ape to a bishop as an ancestor. (Huxley, 
late in life, disavowed this stronger version about apes and bish- 
ops. When Wilberforce’s son included it in a biography of his 
father, Huxley protested and secured a revision.) 

6. Huxley’s riposte inspired an uproar. The meeting ended 
forthwith and in tumult. 


7. Although Moore, to her credit, does not make this claim, we 
are usually told that Huxley had scored an unambiguous and 
decisive victory — a key incident in Darwin’s triumph. 

8. This debate focused the world’s attention on the real and 
deep issue of Darwin’s century — science versus religion. Huxley’s 
victory was a pivotal moment in the battle for science and reason 
against superstition and dogma. 

I have had a strong interest in this story ever since, as an assist- 
ant professor on sabbatical leave at Oxford in 1970, I occupied a 
dingy office in the back rooms of the Zoological Museum, now 
crammed with cabinets of fossils and subdivided into cubicles, 
but then the large and open room where Huxley and Wilberforce 
fell to blows. For six months, I sat next to a small brass plaque 
announcing that the great event had occurred on my very spot. I 
also felt strong discomfort about the official tale for two definite 
reasons. First, it is all too pat — the victor and the vanquished, 
good triumphing over evil, reason over superstition. So few he- 
roic tales in the simplistic mode turn out to be true. Huxley was a 
brilliant orator, but why should Wilberforce have failed so miser- 
ably? Much as I dislike the man, he was no fool. He was as gifted 
an orator as Huxley and a dominant intellectual force among 
conservative Anglicans. 

Second, I knew from preliminary browsings that the official tale 
was a reconstruction, made by Darwin’s champions some quarter 
century after the fact. Amazingly enough (for all its later fame), 
no one bothered to record the event in any detail at the time 
itself. No stenographer was present. The two men exchanged 
words to be sure, but no one knows what they actually said, and 
the few sketchy reports of journalists and letter writers contain 
important gaps and contradictions. Ironically, the official version 
has been so widely accepted and unchallenged not because we 
know its truth by copious documentation, but rather because so 
little data exist for a potential challenge. 

For years, this topic has been about number fifty in my list of 
one hundred or so potential essays (sorry folks, but, the Lord and 
editors willing, you may have me to kick around for some time to 
come). Yet for want of new data about my suspicions, it remained 
well back in my line of processing, until I received a letter from 
my friend and distinguished Darwin scholar Sam Schweber of 
Brandeis University. Schweber wrote: “I came across a letter 


from Balfour Stewart to David Forbes commenting on the BAAS 
meeting he just attended at which he witnessed the Huxley-Wil- 
berforce debate. It is probably the most accurate statement of 
what transpired.” I read Stewart’s letter and sat bolt upright with 
attention and smiles. Stewart wrote, describing the scene along 
the usual lines, thus vouching for the basic outline: 

There was an animated discussion in a large room on Satur- 
day last at Oxford on Darwin’s theory where the Bishop of 
Oxford and Prof. Huxley fell to blows. . . . There was one 
good thing I cannot help mentioning. The Bishop said he 
had been informed that Prof. Huxley had said he didn’t care 
whether his grandfather was an ape [.sic for punctuation] 
now he [the bishop] would not like to go to the Zoological 
Gardens and find his father’s father or his mother’s mother 
in some antiquated ape. To which Prof. Huxley replied that 
he would rather have for his grandfather an honest ape low 
in the scale of being than a man of exalted intellect and high 
attainments who used his power to pervert the truth. 

Colorful, though nothing new so far. But I put an ellipsis early 
in the quotation, and I should now like to restore the missing 
words. Stewart wrote: “I think the Bishop had the best of it.” 
Score one big point for my long-held suspicions. Balfour Stewart 
was no benighted cleric, but a distinguished scientist, Fellow of 
the Royal Society, and director of the Kew Observatory. Balfour 
Stewart also thought that Wilberforce had won the debate! 

This personal discovery sent me to the books (I thank my re- 
search assistant, Ned Young, for tracking down all the sources, 
no mean job for so many obscure bits and pieces). We gathered 
all the eyewitness accounts (damned few) and found a half dozen 
or so modern articles, mostly by literary scholars, on aspects of 
the debate. (Seejanet Browne, 1978; Sheridan Gilley, 1981; J. R. 
Lucas, 1979. I especially commend Browne’s detective work on 
Francis Darwin’s construction of the official version, and Gilley’s 
incisive and well-written account of the debate.) I confess disap- 
pointment in finding that Stewart’s letter was no new discovery. 
Yet I remain surprised that its key value — the claim by an impor- 
tant scientist that Wilberforce had won — has received so little 
attention. So far as I know, Stewart’s letter has never been quoted 


in extenso, and no reference gives it more than a passing sentence. 
But I was delighted to find that the falsity of the official version is 
common knowledge among a small group of scholars. All the 
more puzzling, then, that the standard, heroic account continues 
to hold sway. 

What is so wrong with the official tale, as epitomized in my 
eight points above? We should begin by analyzing the very few 
eyewitness accounts recorded right after the event itself. 

Turning to reports by journalists, we must first mark the out- 
standing negative evidence. In a nation with a lively press, and 
with traditions for full and detailed reporting (so hard to fathom 
from our age of television and breathless paragraphs for the least 
common denominator), the great debate stands out for its nonat- 
tention. Punch, Wilberforce’s frequent and trenchant critic, ig- 
nored the exchange but wrote poem and parody aplenty on 
another famous repartee about evolution from the same meet- 
ing— Huxley versus Owen on the brains of humans and gorillas. 
The Athenaeum, in one of but two accounts (the other from Jack- 
son's Oxford Journal), presents a straightforward report that, in its 
barest outline, already belies the standard version in two or three 
crucial respects. On July 7, the reporter notes Oxford’s bucolic 
charms: Since Friday, the air has been soft, the sky sunny. A 
sense of sudden summer has been felt in the meadows of Christ 
Church and in the gardens of St. John’s; many a dreamer of 
dreams, tempted by the summer warmth . . . and stealing from 
section A or B [of the meeting] has consulted his ease and taken a 
boat.’’ But we then learn of a contrast between fireworks inside 
and punting lazily downstream while taking one’s dolce far niente. 

The Bishop of Oxford came out strongly against a theory 
which holds it possible that man may be descended from an 
ape. . . . But others — conspicuous among these. Prof. Hux- 
ley— have expressed their willingness to accept, for them- 
selves, as well as for their friends and enemies, all actual 
truths, even the last humiliating truth of a pedigree not reg- 
istered in the Herald’s College. The dispute has at least 
made Oxford uncommonly lively during the week. 

1 he next issue, July 14, devotes a full page of tiny type to Dr. 
Draper and his aftermath — the longest eyewitness account ever 


penned. The summary of Wilberforce’s remarks indicates that his 
half-hour oration was not confined to gibe and rhetoric, but pri- 
marily presented a synopsis of the competent (if unoriginal) cri- 
tique of the Origin that he later published in the Quarterly Review. 
The short paragraph allotted to Huxley’s reply does not mention 
the famous repartee — an omission of no great import in a press 
that, however detailed, could be opaquely discreet. But the ac- 
count of Huxley’s words affirms what all letter writers (see below) 
also noted — that Huxley spoke briefly and presented no detailed 
refutation of the bishop’s arguments. Instead, he focused his re- 
marks on the logic of Darwin’s argument, asserting that evolution 
was no mere speculation, but a theory supported by copious evi- 
dence even if the process of transmutation could not be directly 

By the standard account, chaos should now break out, FitzRoy 
should jump up raving, and Henslow should gavel the meeting 
closed. No such thing; the meeting went on. FitzRoy took the 
podium in his turn. Two other speakers followed. And then, the 
true climax — not entirely omitted in Francis Darwin’s “official” 
version so many years later, but so relegated to a few r lines of 
afterthought that the incident simply dropped out of most later 
accounts — leading to the popular impression that Huxley’s ri- 
poste had ended the meeting. Henslow turned to Joseph Hooker, 
the botanist of Darwin’s inner circle, and asked him “to state his 
view of the botanical aspect of the question.” 

Th e Athenaeum gave Hooker’s remarks four times the coverage 
awarded to Huxley. It was Hooker who presented a detailed refu- 
tation of Wilberforce’s specific arguments. It was Hooker who 
charged directly that the bishop had distorted and misunder- 
stood Darwin’s iheory. We get some flavor of Hooker’s force and 
effectiveness from a section of the Athenaeum 's report: 

In the first place, his Lordship, in his eloquent address, had 
as it appeared to him [Hooker], completely misunderstood 
Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis: his Lordship intimated that this 
maintained the doctrine of the transmutation of existing 
species one into another, and had confounded this with that 
of the successive development of species by variation and 
natural selection. The first of these doctrines was so wholly 
opposed to the facts, reasonings and results of Mr. Darwin’s 


work, that he could not conceive how any one who had read 
it could make such a mistake — the whole book, indeed, 
being a protest against that doctrine. 

Moreover, it was Hooker who presented the single most effec- 
tive debating point against Wilberforce (according to several eye- 
witness accounts) by stating publicly that he had long opposed 
evolution hut had been led to the probable truth of Darwin’s 
claim by so many years of direct experience with the form and 
distribution of plants. The bishop did not respond, and Henslow 
closed the meeting after Hooker’s successful speech. 

When we turn to the few letters of eyewitnesses, we find the 
Athenaeum account affirmed, the official story further compro- 
mised, and some important information added — particularly on 
the exchange about apes and ancestors. We must note, first of all, 
that the three letters most commonly cited — those of Green, Faw- 
cett, and Hooker himself — were all written by participants or 
strong partisans of Darwin’s side. For example, future historian 
J. R. Green, source of the standard version for Huxley’s actual 
words, began his account (to the geologist W. Boyd Dawkins) 
with a lovely Egyptian metaphor of fealty to Darwin: 

On Saturday morning 1 met Jenkins going to the Museum. 
We joined company, and he proposed going to Section D, 
the Zoology, etc. “to hear the Bishop of Oxford smash Dar- 
win.” “Smash Darwin! Smash the Pyramids,” said I in great 
wrath. . . . 

(These one-sided sources make Balfour Stewart’s neglected let- 
ter all the more important — for he was the only uncommitted 
scientist who reported his impressions right after the debate.) 

We may draw from these letters, I believe, three conclusions 
that further refute the official version. First, Huxley’s words may 
have rung true, but his oratory was faulty. He was ill at ease (his 
great career as a public speaker lay in the future). He did not 
project; many in the audience did not hear what he said. Hooker 
wrote to Darwin on July 2: 

Well, Sam Oxon [short for Oxoniensis, Latin for “of Ox- 
ford,” Wilberforce’s ecclesiastical title] got up and spouted 


for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and empti- 
ness and unfairness. . . . Huxley answered admirably and 
turned the tables, but he could not throw his voice over so 
large an assembly, nor command the audience; and he did 
not allude to Sam’s weak points nor put the matter in a form 
or way that carried the audience. 

The chemist A. G. Vernon-Harcourt could not recall Huxley’s 
famous words many years later because he had not heard them 
over the din. He wrote to Leonard Huxley: “As the point became 
clear, there was a great burst of applause, which mostly drowned 
the end of the sentence.” 

Second, for all the admitted success of Huxley’s great moment, 
Hooker surely made the more effective rebuttal — and the meet- 
ing ended with his upbeat. 1 hesitate to take Hooker’s own ac- 
count at face value, but he was so scrupulously modest and 
self-effacing, and so willing to grant Huxley all the credit later on 
as the official version congealed, that I think we may titrate the 
adrenaline of his immediate joy with the modesty of his general 
bearing and regard his account to Darwin as pretty accurate: 

My blood boiled, 1 felt myself a dastard; now I saw my ad- 
vantage; I swore to myself that I would smite that Amale- 
kite, Sam, hip and thigh. . . . There and then I smashed him 
amid rounds of applause. I hit him in the wind and then 
proceeded to demonstrate in a few words: (1) that he could 
never have read your book, and (2) that he was absolutely 
ignorant of the rudiments of Bot [botanical] Science. I said 
a few more on the subject of my own experience and con- 
version, . . . Sam was shut up — had not one word to say in 
reply, and the meeting was dissolved forthwith [Hooker’s ital- 

Third, and most important, we do not really know what either 
man said in the famous exchange about apes and ancestors. Hux- 
ley’s retort is not in dispute. The eyewitness versions differ sub- 
stantially in wording, but all agree in content. We might as well 
cite Green’s version, if only because it became canonical when 
Huxley himself “approved” it for Francis Darwin’s biography of 
his father: 


I asserted, and I repeat — that a man has no reason to be 
ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were 
an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would 
rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, 
who, not content with an equivocal success in his own 
sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with 
which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by 
an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers 
from the real points at issue by eloquent digressions and 
skilled appeals to religious prejudice. 

Huxley later demurred only about the word “equivocal,” as- 
serting that he would not have besmirched the bishop’s compe- 
tence in matters of religion. 

Huxley’s own, though lesser-known version (in a brief letter 
written to his friend Dyster on September 9, 1860) puts the issue 
more succinctly, but to the same effect: 

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have 
a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed 
by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet 
who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere 
purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific dis- 
cussion — I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape. 

But what had Wilberforce said to incur Huxley’s wrath? Quite 
astonishingly, on this pivotal point of the entire legend, we have 
nothing but a flurry of contradictory reports. No two accounts 
coincide. All mention apes and grandfathers, but beyond this 
anchor of agreement, we find almost every possible permutation 
of meaning. 

We don’t know, first of all, whether or not Wilberforce commit- 
ted that most dubious imposition upon Victorian sensibilities by 
daring to mention female ancestry from apes — that is, did he add 
grandmothers or speak only of grandfathers? Several versions 
cite only the male parent, as in Green’s letter: “He [Wilberforce] 
had been told that Professor Huxley had said that he didn’t see 
that it mattered much to a man whether his grandfather was an 
ape or not. Let the learned professor speak for himself.” Yet, I 


am inclined to the conclusion that Wilberforce must have said 
something about grandmothers. The distaff side of descent oc- 
curs in several versions, Balfour Stewart’s neglected letter in par- 
ticular (see earlier citation), by disinterested observers or 
partisans of Wilberforce. I can understand why opponents might 
have delighted in such an addition (“merely corroborative detail, 
intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and 
unconvincing narrative,” as Pooh-Bah liked to say). But why 
should sympathetic listeners remember such a detail if the bishop 
had not included it himself? 

But, far more important, it seems most unlikely that the central 
claim of the official version can be true — namely, that Wilber- 
force taunted Huxley by asking him pointedly whether he could 
trace his personal ancestry from grandparents back to apes 
(made all the worse if the bishop really asked whether he could 
trace it on his mother’s side). No contemporary account puts the 
taunt quite so baldly. The official version cites a letter from Lyell 
(who was not there) since the anonymous eyewitness (more on 
him later) who supplied Francis Darwin’s account could not re- 
member the exact words. Lyell wrote: “The Bishop asked 
whether Huxley was related by his grandfather’s or grand- 
mother’s side to an ape.” The other common version of this taunt 
was remembered by Isabel Sidgwick in 1898: “Then, turning to 
his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it 
through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his 
descent from a monkey?” 

We will never know for sure, but the memories of Canon Farrar 
seem so firm and detailed, and ring so true to me, that I shall 
place my money on his version. Farrar was a liberal clergyman 
who once organized a meeting for Huxley to explain Darwinism 
to fellow men of the cloth. His memories, written in 1899 to 
Leonard Huxley, are admittedly forty years old, but his version 
makes sense of many puzzles and should be weighted well on that 
account — especially since he regarded Huxley as the victor and 
did not write to reconstruct history in the bishop’s cause. Farrar 
wrote, taking the official version of Wilberforce’s taunt to task: 

His words are quite misquoted by you (which your father 

refuted). They did not appear vulgar, nor insolent nor per- 


sonal, but flippant. He had been talking of the perpetuity of 
species in birds [a correct memory since all agree that Wil- 
berforce criticized Darwin on the breeds of pigeons in ex- 
actly this light]: and then denying a fortiori the derivation of 
the species Man from Ape, he rhetorically invoked the help 
of feeling: and said (I swear to the sense and form of the 
sentence, if not to the words) “If anyone were to be willing 
to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, 
would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side 
of his grandmother.” It was (you see) the arousing of antip- 
athy about degrading women to the Quadrumana [four- 
footed apes]. It was not to the point, but it was the purpose. 

It did not sound insolent, but unscientific and unworthy of 
the zoological argument which he had been sustaining. It 
was a bathos. Your father’s reply . . . showed that there was a 
vulgarity as well as a folly in the Bishop’s words; and the 
impression distinctly was, that the Bishop’s party as they left 
the room, felt abashed; and recognized that the Bishop had 
forgotten to behave like a gentleman. 

Farrar’s analysis of Huxley’s victory includes an interesting com- 
ment on Victorian sensibilities: 

The victory of your father, was not the ironical dexterity 
shown by him, but the fact that he had got a victory in re- 
spect of manners and good breeding. You must remember 
that the whole audience was made up of gentlefolk, who 
were not prepared to endorse anything vulgar. 

Finally, Farrar affirms the other major falsity of the official ver- 
sion by acknowledging the superiority of Hooker’s reply: 

The speech which really left its mark scientifically on the 
meeting, was the short one of Hooker. ... I should say that 
to fair minds, the intellectual impression left by the discus- 
sion was that the Bishop had stated some facts about the 
perpetuity of species, but that no one had really contributed 
any valuable point to the opposite side except Hooker . . . 
but that your father had scored a victory over Bishop Wil- 
berforce in the question of good manners. 


And so, in summary, we may conclude that the heroic legend of 
the official version fails badly in two crucial points — our igno- 
rance of Wilberforce’s actual words and the near certainty that 
the forgotten Hooker made a better argument than Huxley. 
What, then, can we conclude, based on such poor evidence, 
about such a key event in the hagiography of science? Huxley did 
not debate Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860; rather, they both 
spoke, one after the other, in a prolonged discussion of Draper’s 
paper. They had one short and wonderful exchange of rhetorical 
barbs on a totally nonintellectual point prompted by a whimsical 
remark, perhaps even a taunt, that Wilberforce made about apes 
and ancestry, though no one remembered precisely what he said. 
Huxley made a sharp and effective retort. Everyone enjoyed the 
incident immensely and recalled it in a variety of versions. Some 
thought Huxley had won the exchange; others credit Wilber- 
force. Huxley hardly dealt with Wilberforce’s case against Dar- 
win. Hooker, however, made an effective reply in Darwin’s 
behalf, and the meeting ended. 

All events before the codification of the official version support 
this ambiguous and unheroic account. In particular, Wilberforce 
seemed not a bit embarrassed by the incident. Disraeli spoke 
about it in his presence. Wilberforce reprinted his review of Dar- 
win’s Origin , the basis of his remarks that fateful day, in an 1874 
collection of his works. His son recounted the tale with credit in 
Wilberforce’s biography. Moreover, Darwin and Wilberforce re- 
mained on good terms. The ever genial Darwin wrote to Asa 
Gray that he found Wilberforce’s review “uncommonly clever, 
not worth anything scientifically, but quizzes me in splendid style. 
I chuckled with laughter at myself.” Wilberforce, told by the vicar 
of Downe about Darwin’s reaction, said: “I am glad he takes it in 
this way. He is such a capital fellow.” 

Moreover, though I don’t believe that self-justification pro- 
vides much evidence for anything, we do have a short testimony 
from Wilberforce himself. He wrote to Sir Charles Anderson just 
three days after the event: “On Saturday Professor Henslow who 
presided over the Zoological Section called on me by name to 
address the Section on Darwin’s Theory. So I could not escape 
and had quite a long fight with Huxley. I think I thoroughly beat 
him.” This letter, now housed in the Bodleian Library of Oxford 
University, escaped all notice until 1978, when Josef L. Altholz 


cited it in the Journal of the History of Medicine. I would not exagger- 
ate the importance of this document because it smacks of insin- 
cerity at least once — so why not in its last line as well? We know 
that 700 people crammed the Museum’s largest room to witness 
the proceedings. They didn’t come to hear Dr. Draper on the 
intellectual development of Europe. Wilberforce was on the dais, 
and if he didn t know that he would speak, how come everyone 
else did? 

Why then, and how, did the official version so color this event 
as a primal victory for evolution? The answer largely lies with 
Huxley himself, who successfully promoted, in retrospect, a ver- 
sion that suited his purposes (and had probably, by then, dis- 
placed the actual event in his memory). Huxley, though not 
antireligious, was uncompromisingly and pugnaciously anticleri- 
cal. Moreover, he despised Wilberforce and his mellifluous soph- 
istries. When Wilberforce died in 1873, from head injuries 
sustained in a fall from his horse, Huxley remarked (as the story 
goes): “For once, reality and his brains came into contact and the 
result was fatal.” 

Janet Browne has traced the construction of the official version 
in Francis Darwin’s biography of his father. The story is told 
through an anonymous eyewitness, but Browne proves that 
Hooker himself wrote the account, volunteering for the task with 
direct purpose (writing to Francis): “Have you any account of the 
Oxford meeting? If not, I will, if you like, see what I can do to- 
wards vivifying it (and vivisecting the Bishop) for you.” Hooker 
dredged his memory with pain and uncertainty. He had forgotten 
his letter to Darwin and admitted, “It is impossible to be sure of 
what one heard, or of impressions formed, after nearly thirty 
years of active life.” And further, “I have been driven wild for- 
mulating it from memory.” Huxley then vetted Hooker’s account 
and the official story was set. 

The tale was then twice embellished — first, in 1892, when 
Francis published a shorter biography of Charles Darwin, and 
Huxley contributed a letter, now remembering for the first time 
(more than thirty years later) his sotto voce crack, “The Ford hath 
delivered him into mine hands”; second, in 1900, when Feonard 
Huxley wrote the life of his father. Thus, dutiful sons presented 
the official version as constructed by a committee of two — the 
chief participants Huxley and Hooker — from memories colored 


by thirty years of battle. We can only agree with Sheridan Gilley, 
who writes: 

The standard account is a wholly one-sided effusion from 
the winning side, put together long after the event, uncriti- 
cally copied front book to book, and shaped by the hagio- 
graphic conventions of the Victorian life and letters. 

So much for correcting a moment of history. But why should 
we care today? Does the heroic version do any harm? And does its 
rectification have any meaning beyond our general preference 
for accuracy? Stories do not become primary legends simply be- 
cause they tell rip-roaring narratives; they must stand as exem- 
plars, particular representations of something deeper and far 
more general. The official version of Huxley versus Wilberforce 
is an archetype for a common belief about the nature of science 
and its history. The fame and meaning of the official version lie in 
this wider context. Yet this common belief is not only wrong (or 
at least seriously oversimplified) but ultimately harmful to sci- 
ence. Thus, in debunking the official version of Huxley versus 
Wilberforce, we might make a helpful correction for science it- 

Ruth Moore captured the general theme in her version of the 
standard account: “From that hour on, the quarrel over the ele- 
mental issue that the world believed was involved, science versus 
religion, was to rage unabated.” The story has archetypal power 
because Huxley and Wilberforce, in the official version, are not 
mere men but symbols, or synecdoches, for a primal struggle: 
religion versus science, reaction versus enlightenment, dogma 
versus truth, darkness versus light. 

All men have blind spots, however broad their vision. Thomas 
Henry Huxley was the most eloquent spokesman that evolution 
has ever known. But his extreme anticlericalism led him to an 
uncompromising view of organized religion as the enemy of sci- 
ence. Huxley could envision no allies among the official clergy. 
Conservatives like Wilberforce were enemies pure and simple; 
liberals lacked the guts to renounce what fact and logic had falsi- 
fied, as they struggled to marry the irreconcilable findings of sci- 
ence with their supernatural vision. He wrote in 1887 of those 
“whose business seems to be to mix the black of dogma and the 


white of science into the neutral tint of what they call liberal 
theology." Huxley did view his century as a battleground be- 
tween science and organized religion — and he took great pride in 
the many notches on his own gun. 

This cardboard dichotomy seems favorable for science at first 
(and superficial) glance. It enshrines science as something pure 
and apart from the little quirks and dogmas of daily fife. It exalts 
science as a disembodied method for discovering truth at all 
costs, while social institutions — religion in particular — hold fast 
to antiquated superstition. Comfort and social stability resist 
truth, and science must therefore fight a lonely battle for enlight- 
enment. Its heroes, in bad times, are true martyrs — Bruno at the 
stake, Galileo before the Inquisition — or, in better times, merely 
irritated, as Huxley was, by ecclesiastical stupidity. 

But no battle exists between science and religion — the two 
most separate spheres of human need. A titanic struggle occurs, 
always has, always will, between questioning and authority, free 
inquiry and frozen dogma — but the institutions representing 
these poles are not science and religion. These struggles occur 
within each field, not primarily across disciplines. The general 
ethic of science leads to greater openness, but we have our fos- 
sils, often in positions of great power. Organized religion, as an 
arm of state power so frequently in history, has tended to rigid- 
ity — but theologies have also spearheaded social revolution. Of- 
ficial religion has not opposed evolution as a monolith. Many 
prominent evolutionists have been devout, and many churchmen 
have placed evolution at the center of their personal theologies. 
Henry Ward Beecher, America’s premier pulpiteer during Dar- 
win s century, defended evolution as God’s way in a striking com- 
mercial metaphor: “Design by wholesale is grander than design 
by retail" — better, that is, to ordain general laws of change than 
to make each species by separate fiat. 

The struggle of free inquiry against authority is so central, so 
pervasive that we need all the help we can get from every side. 
Inquiring scientists must join hands with questioning theologians 
if we wish to preserve that most fragile of all reeds, liberty itself. If 
scientists lose their natural allies by casting entire institutions as 
enemies, and not seeking bonds with soul mates on other paths, 
then we only make a difficult struggle that much harder. 

Huxley had not planned to enter that famous Oxford meeting. 


He was still inexperienced in public debate, not yet Darwin’s bull- 
dog. He wrote: “I did not mean to attend it — did not see the good 
of giving up peace and quietness to be episcopally pounded.” But 
his friends prevailed upon him, and Huxley, savoring victory, left 
the meeting with pleasure and resolution: 

Hooker and I walked away from the meeting together, and I 
remember saying to him that this experience had changed 
my opinion as to the practical value of the art of public 
speaking, and that from that time forth I should carefully 
cultivate it, and try to leave off hating it. 

So Huxley became the greatest popular spokesman for science 
in his century — as a direct result of his famous encounter with 
Wilberforce. He waded into the public arena and struggled for 
three decades to breach the boundaries between science and the 
daily life of ordinary people. And yet, ironically, his Manichean 
view of science and religion — abetted so strongly by the official 
version, his own construction in part, of the debate with Wilber- 
force — harmed his greatest hope by establishing boundaries to 
exclude natural allies and, ultimately, by encircling science as 
something apart from other human passions. We may, perhaps, 
read one last document of the great Oxford debate in a larger 
metaphorical context as a plea, above all, for solidarity among 
people of like minds and institutions of like purposes. Darwin to 
Hooker upon receiving his account of the debate: “Talk of fame, 
honor, pleasure, wealth, all are dirt compared with affection.” 

Genesis and Geology 

Herbert hoover produced a fine translation, still in 
use, of Agricola’s sixteenth-century Latin treatise on mining and 
geology. In the midst of his last presidential campaign, Teddy 
Roosevelt published a major monograph on the evolutionary sig- 
nificance of animal coloration (see Essay 14). Woodrow Wilson 
was no intellectual slouch, and John F. Kennedy did aptly remark 
to a group of Nobel laureates assembled at the White House that 
the building then contained more intellectual power than at any 
moment since the last time Thomas Jefferson dined there alone. 

Still, when we seek a political past of intellectual eminence in 
the midst of current emptiness, we cannot do better than the 
helm of Victorian Britain. High ability may not have prevailed 
generally, as the wise Private Willis, guard to the House of Com- 
mons, reminds us in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe: 

When in that House M.P.’s divide. 

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too, 

They’ve got to leave that brain outside, 

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to. 

But then the prospect of a lot 
Of dull M.P.’s in close proximity 
All thinking for themselves is what 
No man can face with equanimity. 

But the men at the top — the Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli and 
his Liberal counterpart W. E. Gladstone— were formidable in 
many various ways. Disraeli maintained an active career as a re- 



spected romantic novelist, publishing the three-volume Endymion 
in 1880, at the height of his prestige and just a year before his 
death. Gladstone, a distinguished Greek scholar, wrote his three- 
volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858) while tempo- 
rarily out of office. 

In 1885, following a series of setbacks including the death of 
General Gordon at Khartoum, Gladstone’s government fell, and 
he resigned as prime minister. He did not immediately proceed 
to unwind with his generation’s rum swizzle on a Caribbean 
beach (Chivas Regal on the links of Saint Andrews, perhaps). 
Instead, he occupied his enforced leisure by writing an article on 
the scientific truth of the book of Genesis — “Dawn of Creation 
and of Worship,” published in The Nineteenth Century, in Novem- 
ber 1885. Thomas Henry Huxley, who invented the word agnostic 
to describe his own feelings, read Gladstone’s effort with disgust 
and wrote a response to initiate one of the most raucous, if for- 
gotten, free-for-alls of late nineteenth century rhetoric. (Huxley 
disliked Gladstone and once described him as suffering from 
“severely copious chronic glossorrhoea.”) 

But why bring up a forgotten and musty argument, even if the 
protagonists were two of the most colorful and brilliant men of 
the nineteenth century? I do so because current events have 
brought their old subject — (he correlation of Genesis with geol- 
ogy — to renewed attention. 

Our legislative victory over “creation science” (Supreme Court 
in Edwards v. Aguillard, June 1987) ended an important chapter in 
American social history, one that stretched back to the Scopes 
trial of 1925. (Biblical literalism will never go away, so long as 
cash flows and unreason retains its popularity, but the legislative 
strategy of passing off dogma as creation science and forcing its 
instruction in classrooms has been defeated.) In this happy light, 
we are now free to ask the right question once again: In what 
helpful ways may science and religion coexist? 

Ever since the Edwards decision, I have received a rash of well- 
meaning letters suggesting a resolution very much like Glad- 
stone’s. These letters begin by professing pleasure at the defeat 
of fundamentalism. Obviously, six days of creation and circa 
6,000 years of biblical chronology will not encompass the earth’s 
history. But, they continue, once we get past the nonsense of 
literalism, are we not now free to read Genesis 1 as factual in a 


more general sense? Of course the days of creation can’t be 
twenty-four hours long. Of course the origin of light three days 
before the creation of the sun poses problems. But aren’t the 
general order and story consistent with modern science, from the 
big bang to Darwinian theory? After all, plants come first in Gen- 
esis, then creatures of the sea, then land animals, and finally hu- 
mans. Well, isn’t this right? And, if so, then isn’t Genesis true in 
the broad sense? And if true, especially since the scribes of Gene- 
sis could not have understood the geological evidence, must not 
the words be divinely inspired? This sequence of claims forms the 
core of Gladstone’s article. Huxley’s words therefore deserve a 

Huxley’s rebuttal follows the argument that most intellectu- 
als — scientists and theologians alike — make today. First, while 
the broadest brush of the Genesis sequence might be correct — 
plants first, people last — many details are dead wrong by the tes- 
timony of geological evidence from the fossil record. Second, this 
lack of correlation does not compromise the power and purpose 
of religion or its relationship with the sciences. Genesis is not a 
treatise on natural history. 

Gladstone wrote his original article as a response to a book by 
Professor Alfred Reville of the College de France — Prolegomena to 
the History of Religions (1884). Gladstone fancied himself an expert 
on Homer, and he had labored for thirty years to show that com- 
mon themes of the Bible and the most ancient Greek texts could 
be harmonized to expose the divine plan revealed by the earliest 
historical records of different cultures. Gladstone was most of- 
fended by Reville’s dismissal of his Homeric claims, but his article 
focuses on the veracity of Genesis. 

Gladstone did not advocate the literal truth of Genesis; science 
had foreclosed this possibility to any Victorian intellectual. He 
accepted, for example, the standard argument that the “days” of 
creation are metaphors for periods of undetermined length sepa- 
rating the major acts of a coherent sequence. But Gladstone then 
insisted that these major acts conform precisely to the order best 
specified by modern science — the cosmological events of the first 
four days (Genesis 1 : 1-19) to Laplace’s “nebular hypothesis” for 
the origin of the sun and planets, and the biological events of 
“days” five and six (Genesis 1:20-31) to the geological record of 
fossils and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He placed special em- 


phasis on a fourfold sequence in the appearance of animals: the 
“water population” followed by the “air population” on the fifth 
day, and the “land population” and its “consummation in man” 
on the sixth day: 

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the 
moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above 
the earth in the open Armament of heaven [Verse 20], . . . 
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature 
after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the 
earth after its kind; and it was so [Verse 24]. . . . And God 
said, Let us make man in our image [Verse 26]. 

Gladstone then caps his argument with the claim still echoed 
by modern reconcilers: This order, too good to be guessed by 
writers ignorant of geological evidence, must have been revealed 
by God to the scribes of Genesis: 

Then, I ask, how came . . . the author of the Arst chapter of 
Genesis to know that order, to possess knowledge which 
natural science has only within the present century for the 
Arst time dug out of the bowels of the earth? It is surely 
impossible to avoid the conclusion, Arst, that either this 
writer was gifted with faculties passing all human experi- 
ence, or else his knowledge was divine. 

In a closing flourish, Gladstone enlarged his critique in a man- 
ner sure to inspire Huxley’s wrath. He professed himself satisAed 
as to the possibility of physical evolution, even by Darwin’s mech- 
anism. But the spirit, the soul, the “mind of man” must be divine 
in origin, thereby dwarhng to insigniAcance anything in the 
merely material world. Gladstone chided Darwin for reaching too 
far, for trying to render the ethereal realm by his crass and heart- 
less mechanism. He ridiculed the idea “that natural selection and 
the survival of the Attest, all in the physical order, exhibit to us 
the great arcanum of creation, the sun and center of life, so that 
mind and spirit are dethroned from their old supremacy, are no 
longer sovereign by right, but may And somewhere by charity a 
place assigned them, as appendages, perhaps only as excres- 
cences, of the material creation.” 


Ending on a note of deep sadness, Gladstone feared for our 
equanimity, our happiness, our political stability, our hopes for a 
moral order, should the festering sore of agnosticism undermine 
our assurance of God’s existence and benevolence — “this belief, 
which has satisfied the doubts and wiped away the tears, and 
found guidance for the footsteps of so many a weary wanderer on 
earth, which among the best and greatest of our race has been so 
cherished by those who had it, and so longed and sought for by 
those who had it not.” If science could now illustrate God by 
proving that he knew his stuff when he whispered into Moses’ ear, 
then surely that sore could be healed. 

Huxley, who had formally retired just a few months before, and 
who had forsworn future controversy of exactly this kind, re- 
sponded with an article in the December issue of The Nineteenth 
Century — “The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of 
Nature.” Obviously pleased with himself, and happy with his re- 
turn to fighting form, he wrote to Herbert Spencer: “Do read my 
polishing off of the G.O.M. [Gladstone was known to friends and 
enemies alike as the “Grand Old Man”]. I am proud of it as a 
work of art, and as evidence that the volcano is not yet ex- 

Huxley begins by ridiculing the very notion that harmonizing 
Genesis with geology has any hope of success or intellectual po- 
tential to illustrate anything meaningful. He places Gladstone 
among “those modern representatives of Sisyphus, the reconcil- 
ers of Genesis with science.” (Sisyphus, king of Corinth, tried to 
cheat death and was punished in Hades with the eternal task of 
repeatedly rolling a large stone to the top of a hill, only to have it 
roll down again just as it reached the top.) 

Huxley arranged his critique by citing four arguments against 
Gladstone’s insistence that Genesis specified an accurate “four- 
fold order” of creation — water population, air population, land 
population, and man. Huxley wrote: 

If I know anything at all about the results attained by the 
natural sciences of our time, it is a demonstrated conclusion 
and established fact that the fourfold order given by Mr. 
Gladstone is not that in which the evidence at our disposal 
tends to show that the water, air and land populations of the 



globe have made their appearance. . . . The facts which 
demolish his whole argument are of the commonest notori- 
ety. [Huxley uses “notoriety” not in its current, pejorative 
meaning, but in the old sense of “easily and evidently 
known to all.”] 

He then presents his arguments in sequence: 

1. Direct geological evidence shows that land animals arose 
before (lying creatures. This reversal of biblical sequence holds 
whether we view the Genesis text as referring only to vertebrates 
(for terrestrial amphibians and reptiles long precede birds) or to 
all animals (for such terrestrial arthropods as scorpions arise 
before Hying insects). 

2. Even if we didn’t know, or chose not to trust, the geological 
sequence, we could deduce on purely anatomical grounds that 
flying creatures must have evolved from preexisting terrestrial 
ancestors. Structures used in flight are derived modifications of 
terrestrial features: 

Every beginner in the study of animal morphology is aware 
that the organization of a bat, of a bird, or of a pterodactyle, 
presupposes that of a terrestrial quadruped, and that it is 
intelligible only as an extreme modification of the organiza- 
tion of a terrestrial mammal or reptile. In the same way, 
winged insects (if they are to be counted among the “air- 
population”) presuppose insects which were wingless, and 
therefore as “creeping things,” which were part of the land- 

3. Whatever the order of first appearances, new species within 
all groups — water, air, and land dwellers — have continued to 
arise throughout subsequent time, whereas Genesis implies that 
God made all the sea creatures, then all the denizens of the air, 
and so on. 

4. However we may wish to quibble about the order of animals, 
Gladstone should not so conveniently excise plants from his dis- 
cussion. Genesis pushes their origin back to the third day, before 
the origin of any animal. But plants do not precede animals in the 
fossil record; and the terrestrial flowering plants specifically men- 


tioned in Genesis (grass and fruit tree) arise very late, long after 
the first mammals. 

Huxley then ends his essay with a powerful statement — every 
bit as relevant today as 100 years ago at its composition — on the 
proper domains and interactions of science and religion. Huxley 
expresses no antipathy for religion, properly conceived, and he 
criticizes scientists who overstep the boundaries and possibilities 
of their discipline as roundly as he condemns an antiquated and 
overextended role for the biblical text: 

The antagonism between science and religion, about which 
we hear so much, appears to me to be purely factitious, 
fabricated on the one hand by short-sighted religious peo- 
ple, who confound . . . theology with religion; and on the 
other by equally short-sighted scientific people who forget 
that science takes for its province only that which is suscep- 
tible of clear intellectual comprehension. 

The moral precepts for our lives, Huxley argues, have been 
developed by great religious thinkers, and no one can improve on 
the Prophet Micah’s statement: “. . . what doth the Lord require 
of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly 
with thy God.” Nothing that science might discover about the 
factual world could possibly challenge, or even contact, this sub- 
lime watchword for a proper life: 

But what extent of knowledge, what acuteness of scientific 
criticism, can touch this, il anyone possessed of knowledge 
or acuteness could be absurd enough to make the attempt? 
Will the progress of research prove that justice is worthless 
and mercy hateful? Will it ever soften the bitter contrast 
between our actions and our aspirations, or show us the 
bounds of the universe, and bid us say, “Go to, now we 
comprehend the infinite”? 

Conflicts develop not because science and religion vie intrinsi- 
cally, but when one domain tries to usurp the proper space of the 
other. In that case, a successful defense of home territory is not 
only noble per se, but a distinct benefit to honorable people in 
both camps: 


The antagonism of science is not to religion, but to the 
heathen survivals and the bad philosophy under which reli- 
gion herself is often well-nigh crushed. And, for my part, 1 
trust that this antagonism will never cease, but that to the 
end of time true science will continue to fulfill one of her 
most beneficent functions, that of relieving men from the 
burden of false science which is imposed upon them in the 
name of religion. 

Gladstone responded with a volley of rhetoric. He began from 
the empyrean heights, pointing out that after so many years of 
parliamentary life he was a tired (if still grand) old man, and 
didn’t know if he could muster the energy for this sort of thing 
anymore — particularly for such a nettlesome and trivial oppo- 
nent as the merely academic Huxley: 

As 1 have lived for more than half a century in an atmo- 
sphere of contention, my stock of controversial fire has per- 
haps become abnormally low; while Professor Huxley, who 
has been inhabiting the F.lysian regions of science . . . may 
be enjoying all the freshness of an unjaded appetite. 

(Much of the fun in reading through this debate lies not in the 
forcefulness of arguments or in the mastery of prose by both 
combatants, but in the sallying and posturing of two old game- 
cocks [Huxley was sixty, Gladstone seventy-six in 1885] pulling 
out every trick from the rhetorical bag — the musty and almost 
shameful, the tried and true, and even a novel flourish here and 

But once Gladstone got going, that old spark fanned quite a 
flame. His denunciations spanned the gamut. Huxley’s words, on 
the one hand, were almost too trivial to merit concern — one lis- 
tens “to his denunciations ... as one listens to distant thunders, 
with a sort of sense that after all they will do no great harm. On 
the other hand, Huxley’s attack could not be more dangerous. “I 
object,” Gladstone writes, “to all these exaggerations ... as sa- 
voring of the spirit of the Inquisition, and as restraints on literary 

Yet, when Gladstone got down to business, he could muster 
only a feeble response to Huxley’s particulars. He did effectively 


combat Huxley’s one weak argument — the third charge that 
all groups continue to generate new species, whatever the se- 
quence of their initial appearance. Genesis, Gladstone replies, 
only discusses the order of origin, not the patterns of subsequent 

If we at range the schools of Greek philosophy in numerical 
order, according to the dates of their inception, we do not 
mean that one expired before another was founded. If the 
archaeologist describes to us as successive in time the ages 
of stone, bronze and iron, he certainly does not mean that 
no kinds of stone implement were invented after bronze 

But Gladstone came to grief on his major claim — the veracity of 
the Genesis sequence: water population, air population, land 
population, and humans. So he took refuge in the oldest ploy of 
debate. He made an end run around his disproved argument and 
changed the terms of discussion. Genesis doesn’t refer to all ani- 
mals, hut “only to the formation of the objects and creatures with 
which early man was conversant.” Therefore, toss out all inverte- 
brates (although I cannot believe that cockroaches had no foot- 
hold, even in the Garden of Eden) and redefine the sequence of 
water, air, land, and mentality as fish, bird, mammal, and man. At 
least this sequence matches the geological record. But every at- 
tempt at redefinition brings new problems. How can the land 
population of the sixth day — “every living thing that creepeth 
upon the earth” — refer to mammals alone and exclude the rep- 
tiles that not only arose long before birds but also provided the 
dinosaurian lineage of their ancestry. This problem backed Glad- 
stone into a corner, and he responded with the weak rejoinder 
that reptiles are disgusting and degenerate things, destined only 
for our inattention (despite Eve and the serpent): “Reptiles are a 
family fallen from greatness; instead of stamping on a great pe- 
riod of fife its leading character, they merely skulked upon the 
earth." Yet Gladstone sensed his difficulty and admitted that 
while reptiles didn't disprove his story, they certainly didn’t help 
him either: “However this case may be regarded, of course I can- 
not draw from it any support to my general contention.” 


Huxley, smelling victory, moved in for the kill. He derided 
Gladstone’s slithery argument about reptiles and continued to 
highlight the evident discrepancies of Genesis, read literally, with 
geology (“Mr. Gladstone and Genesis,” The Nineteenth Century, 

However reprehensible, and indeed contemptible, terres- 
trial reptiles may be, the only question which appears to me 
to be relevant to my argument is whether these creatures 
are or are not comprised under the denomination of “ev- 
erything that creepeth upon the ground.” 

Contrasting the approved tactics of Parliament and science, Hux- 
ley obliquely suggested that Gladstone might emulate the wise 
cobbler and stick to his last. Invoking reptiles once again, he 

Still, the wretched creatures stand there, importunately de- 
manding notice; and, however different may be the practice 
in that contentious atmosphere with which Mr. Gladstone 
expresses and laments his familiarity, in the atmosphere of 
science it really is of no avail whatever to shut one’s eyes to 
facts, or to try to bury them out of sight under a tumulus of 

Gladstone’s new sequence offish, bird, mammal, and man per- 
forms no better than his first attempt in reconciling Genesis and 
geology. The entire enterprise, Huxley asserts, is misguided, 
wrong, and useless: “Natural science appears to me to decline to 
have anything to do with either [of Gladstone’s two sequences]; 
they are as wrong in detail as they are mistaken in principle.” 
Genesis is a great work of literature and morality, not a treatise 
on natural history: 

The Pentateuchal story of the creation is simply a myth [in 
the literary, not pejorative, sense of the term]. I suppose it 
to be a hypothesis respecting the origin of the universe 
which some ancient thinker found himself able to reconcile 
with his knowledge, or what he thought was knowledge, of 


the nature of things, and therefore assumed to be true. As 
such, I hold it to be not merely an interesting but a vener- 
able monument of a stage in the mental progress of man- 

Gladstone, who was soon to enjoy a fourth stint as prime minis- 
ter, did not respond. The controversy then flickered, shifting 
from the pages of The Nineteenth Century to the letters column of 
the Tunes. Then it died for a while, only to be reborn from time to 
time ever since. 

I find something enormously ironical in this old battle, fought 
by Huxley and Gladstone a century ago and by much lesser lights 
even today. It doesn t matter a damn because Huxley was right in 
asserting that correspondence between Genesis and the fossil 
record holds no significance for religion or for science. Still, I 
think that Gladstone and most modern purveyors of his argu- 
ment have missed the essence of the kind of myth that Genesis 1 
represents. Nothing could possibly be more vain or intemperate 
than a trip on these waters by someone lacking even a rudder or a 
paddle in any domain of appropriate expertise. Still, I do feel that 
when read simply for its underlying metaphor, the story of Gene- 
sis 1 does contradict Gladstone’s fundamental premise. Glad- 
stone’s effort rests upon the notion that Genesis 1 is a tale about 
addition and linear sequence— God makes this, then this, and then 
this in a sensible order. Since Gladstone also views evolution and 
geology as a similar story of progress by accretion, reconciliation 
becomes possible. Gladstone is quite explicit about this form of 

Evolution is, to me, a series with development. And like 
series in mathematics, whether arithmetical or geometrical, 
it establishes in things an unbroken progression; it places 
each thing ... in a distinct relation to every other thing, and 
makes each a witness to all that have preceded it, a prophecy 
of all that are to follow it. 

But I can’t read Genesis 1 as a story about linear addition at all. 

I think that its essential theme rests upon a different metaphor 

differentiation rather than accretion. God creates a chaotic and 


formless totality at first, and then proceeds to make divisions 
within — to precipitate islands of stability and growing complexity 
from the vast, encompassing potential of an initial state. Con- 
sider the sequence of “days.” 

On day one, God makes two primary and orthogonal divisions: 
He separates heaven from earth, and light from darkness. But 
each category only represents a diffuse potential, containing no 
differentiated complexity. The earth is “without form and void 
and no sun, moon, or stars yet concentrate the division of light 
from darkness. On the second day, God consolidates the separa- 
tion of heaven and earth by creating the firmament and calling it 
heaven. The third day is then devoted to differentiating the cha- 
otic earth into its stable parts — land and sea. Land then develops 
further by bringing forth plants. (Does this indicate that the 
writer of Genesis treated life under a taxonomy very different 
from ours? Did he see plants as essentially of the earth and ani- 
mals as something separate? Would he have held that plants have 
closer affinity with soil than with animals?) The fourth day does 
for the firmament what the third day accomplished for earth: 
heaven differentiates and light becomes concentrated into two 
great bodies, the sun and moon. 

The fifth and sixth days are devoted to the creation of animal 
life, but again the intended metaphor may be differentiation 
rather than linear addition. On the fifth day, the sea and then the 
air bring forth their intended complexity of living forms. On the 
sixth day, the land follows suit. The animals are not simply placed 
bv God in their proper places. Rather, the places themselves 
“bring forth” or differentiate their appropriate inhabitants at the 
appointed times. 

The final result is a candy box of intricately sculpted pieces, 
with varying degrees of complexity. But how did the box arise? 
Did the candy maker just add items piece by piece, according to a 
prefigured plan — Gladstone’s model of linear addition? Or did 
he start with the equivalent of a tray of fudge, and then make 
smaller and smaller divisions with his knife, decorating each 
piece as he cut by sculpting wondrous forms from the potential 
inherent in the original material? I read the story in this second 
manner. And if differentiation be the more appropriate meta- 
phor, then Genesis cannot be matching Gladstone’s linear view 


of evolution. I he two stories rest on different premises of organi- 
zation — addition and differentiation.* 

But does life’s history really match either of these two stories? 
Addition and differentiation are not mutually exclusive truths in- 
herent in nature. They are schemata of organization for human 
thought, two among a strictly limited number of ways that we 
have devised to tell stories about nature’s patterns. Battles have 
been fought in their names many times before, sometimes strictly 
within biology. Consider, for example, the early nineteenth cen- 
tury struggle in German embryology between one of the greatest 
of all natural scientists, Karl Ernst von Baer, who viewed develop- 
ment as a process of differentiation from general forms to specific 
structures, and the Naturphilosophen (nature philosophers) with 
their romantic conviction that all developmental processes (in- 
cluding embryology) must proceed by linear addition of com- 
plexity as spirit struggles to incarnate itself in the highest, human 
form (see Chapter 2 of my book Ontogeny and Phytogeny, Harvard 
University Press, 1977). 

My conclusion may sound unexciting, even wishy-washy, but I 
think that evolution just says yes to both metaphors for different 
parts of its full complexity. Yes, truly novel structures do arise in 
temporal order — first fins, then legs, then hair, then language — 
and additive models describe part of the story well. Yes, the cod- 
ing rules of DNA have not changed, and all of life’s history 
differentiates from a potential inherent from the first. Is the his- 
tory of Western song a linear progression of styles or the con- 
struction of more and more castles for a kingdom fully specified 
in original blueprints by notes of the scale and rules of composi- 

Finally, and most important, the bankruptcy of Gladstone’s ef- 
fort lies best exposed in this strictly limited number of deep meta- 
phors available to our understanding. Gladstone was wrong in 
critical detail, as Huxley so gleefully proved. But what if he had 
been entirely right? What if the Genesis sequence had been gen- 
erally accurate in its broad brush? Would such a correspondence 

* After writing this essay, I visited the cathedral of San Marco in Venice, and was 
pleased to note that the early medieval mosaics of the great creation dome (in the 
south end of the narthex) picture the events of the first six days as an explicit 
sequence of divisions with differentiation. 


mean that God had dictated the Torah word by word? Of course 
not. How many possible stories can we tell? How many can we 
devise beyond addition and differentiation? Simultaneous cre- 
ation? Top down appearance? Some, perhaps, but not many. So 
what if the Genesis scribe wrote his beautiful myth in one of the 
few conceivable and sensible ways — and if later scientific discov- 
eries then established some fortuitous correspondences with his 
tale? Bats didn’t know about extinct pterodactyls, but they still 
evolved wings that work in similar ways. The strictures of flying 
don’t permit many other designs — -just as the limited pathways 
from something small and simple to something big and complex 
don’t allow many alternatives in underlying metaphor. Genesis 
and geology happen not to correspond very well. But it wouldn’t 
mean much if they did — for we would only learn something about 
the limits to our storytelling, not even the whisper of a lesson 
about the nature and meaning of life or God. 

Genesis and geology are sublimely different. William Jennings 
Bryan used to dismiss geology by arguing that he was only inter- 
ested in the rock of ages, not the age of rocks. But in our tough 
world — not cleft for us, and offering no comfortable place to 
hide — I think we had better pay mighty close attention to both. 

William Jennings Bryan’s 
Last Campaign 

i have several reasons for choosing to celebrate 
our legal victory over “creation science” by trying to understand 
with sympathy the man who forged this long and painful episode 
in American history — William Jennings Bryan. In June 1987, the 
Supreme Court voided the last creationist statute by a decisive 
7-2 vote, and then wrote their decision in a manner so clear, so 
strong, and so general that even the most ardent fundamentalists 
must admit the defeat of their legislative strategy against evolu- 
tion. In so doing, the Court ended William Jennings Bryan’s last 
campaign, the cause that he began just after World War I as his 
final legacy, and the battle that took both his glory and his life in 
Dayton, Tennessee, when, humiliated by Clarence Darrow, he 
died just a few days after the Scopes trial in 1925. 

My reasons range across the domain of Bryan’s own character. 
I could invoke rhetorical and epigrammatic expressions, the kind 
that Bryan, as America’s greatest orator, laced so abundantly into 
his speeches— Churchill’s motto for World War II, for example: 

In victory, magnanimity. But I know that my main reason is 
personal, even folksy, the kind of one-to-one motivation that 
Bryan, in his persona as the Great Commoner, would have ap- 
plauded. I wo years ago, a colleague sent me an ancient tape of 
Bryan’s voice. I expected to hear the pious and polished shout- 
ings of an old stump master, all snake oil and orotund sophistry. 
Instead, I heard the most uncanny and friendly sweetness, high 
pitched, direct, and apparently sincere. Surely this man could not 
simply be dismissed, as by H. L. Mencken, reporting the Scopes 



trial for the Baltimore Sun: as “a tinpot Pope in the Coca-Cola 

I wanted to understand a man who could speak with such 
warmth, yet talk such yahoo nonsense about evolution. I wanted, 
above all, to resolve a paradox that has always cried out for some 
answer rooted in Bryan’s psyche. How could this man, America’s 
greatest populist reformer, become, late in life, her arch reac- 

For it was Bryan who, just one year beyond the minimum age of 
thirty-five, won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896 
with his populist rallying cry for abolition of the gold standard: 
‘‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of 
thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” 
Bryan who ran twice more, and lost in noble campaigns for re- 
form, particularly for Philippine independence and against 
American imperialism. Bryan, the pacifist who resigned as Wil- 
son’s secretary of state because he sought a more rigid neutrality 
in the First World War. Bryan who stood at the forefront of most 
progressive victories in his time: women’s suffrage, the direct 
election of senators, the graduated income tax (no one loves it, 
but can you think of a fairer way?). How could this man have then 
joined forces with the cult of biblical literalism in an effort to 
purge religion of all liberality, and to stifle the same free thought 
that he had advocated in so many other contexts? 

This paradox still intrudes upon us because Bryan forged a 
living legacy, not merely an issue for the mists and niceties of 
history. For without Bryan, there never would have been anti- 
evolution laws, never a Scopes trial, never a resurgence in our 
day, never a decade of frustration and essays for yours truly, 
never a Supreme Court decision to end the issue. Every one of 
Bryan’s progressive triumphs would have occurred without him. 
He fought mightily and helped powerfully, but women would be 
voting today and we would be paying income tax if he had never 
been born. But the legislative attempt to curb evolution was his 
baby, and he pursued it with all his legendary demoniac fury. No 
one else in the ill-organized fundamentalist movement had the 
inclination, and surely no one else had the legal skill or political 
clout. Ironically, fundamentalist legislation against evolution is 
the only truly distinctive and enduring brand that Bryan placed 


William Jennings Bryan on (he slump. Taken during the presidential 
campaign of 1896. the bettmann archive. 

upon American history. It was Bryan’s movement that finally bit 
the dust in Washington in June of 1987. 

The paradox of shifting allegiance is a recurring theme in liter- 
ature about Bryan. His biography in the Encyclopaedia Britannica 
holds that the Scopes trial “proved to be inconsistent with many 
progressive causes he had championed for so long.” One promi- 
nent biographer located his own motivation in trying to discover 
what had transformed Bryan from a crusader for social and eco- 


nomic reform to a champion of anachronistic rural evangelism, 
cheap moral panaceas, and Florida real estate” (L. W. Levine, 

Two major resolutions have been proposed. The first, clearly 
the majority view, holds that Bryan’s last battle was inconsistent 
with, even a nullification of, all the populist campaigning that had 
gone before. Who ever said that a man must maintain an un- 
changing ideology throughout adulthood; and what tale of 
human psychology could be more familiar than the transition 
from crusading firebrand to diehard reactionary. Most biogra- 
phies treat the Scopes trial as an inconsistent embarrassment, a 
sad and unsettling end. The title to the last chapter of almost 
every book about Bryan features the word “retreat” or “decline.” 

The minority view, gaining ground in recent biographies and 
clearly correct in my judgment, holds that Bryan never trans- 
formed or retreated, and that he viewed his last battle against 
evolution as an extension of the populist thinking that had in- 
spired his life’s work (in addition to Levine, cited previously, see 
Paolo E. Coletta, 1969, and W. H. Smith, 1975). 

Bryan always insisted that his campaign against evolution 
meshed with his other struggles. I believe that we should take him 
at his word. He once told a cartoonist how to depict the harmony 
of his life’s work; “If you would be entirely accurate you should 
represent me as using a double-barreled shotgun, firing one bar- 
rel at the elephant as he tries to enter the treasury and another at 
Darwinism — the monkey — as he tries to enter the schoolroom.” 
And he said to the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1923: 
“There has not been a reform for 25 years that I did not support. 
And I am now engaged in the biggest reform of my life. I am 
trying to save the Christian Church from those who are trying to 
destroy her faith.” 

But how can a move to ban the teaching of evolution in public 
schools be deemed progressive? How did Bryan link his previous 
efforts to this new strategy? The answers lie in the history of 
Bryan’s changing attitudes toward evolution. 

Bryan had passed through a period of skepticism in college. 
(According to one story, more than slightly embroidered no 
doubt, he wrote to Robert G. Ingersoll for ammunition but, upon 
receiving only a pat reply from his secretary, reverted immedi- 
ately to orthodoxy.) Still, though Bryan never supported evolu- 


tion, he did not place opposition high on his agenda; in fact, he 
evinced a positive generosity and pluralism toward Darwin. In 
"The Prince of Peace,” a speech that ranked second only to the 
Cross of Gold” for popularity and frequency of repetition, 
Bryan said: 

I do not carry the doctrine of evolution as far as some do; I 
am not yet convinced that man is a lineal descendant of the 
lower animals. I do not mean to find fault with you if you 
want to accept the theory. . . . While I do not accept the 
Darwinian theory I shall not quarrel with you about it. 

(Bryan, who certainly got around, first delivered this speech in 
1904, and described it in his collected writings as “a lecture deliv- 
ered at many Chautauqua and religious gatherings in America, 
also in Canada, Mexico, Tokyo, Manila, Bombay, Cairo, and Jeru- 

He persisted in this attitude of laissez-faire until World War I, 
when a series of events and conclusions prompted his transition 
from toleration to a burning zeal for expurgation. His arguments 
did not form a logical sequence, and were dead wrong in key 
particulars; but who can doubt the passion of his feelings? 

We must acknowledge, before explicating the reasons for his 
shift, that Bryan was no intellectual. Please don’t misconstrue this 
statement. I am not trying to snipe front the depth of Harvard 
elitism, but to understand. Bryan’s dearest friends said as much. 
Bryan used his first-rate mind in ways that are intensely puzzling 
to trained scholars — and we cannot grasp his reasons without 
mentioning this point. The “Prince of Peace” displays a pro- 
found ignorance in places, as when Bryan defended the idea of 
miracles by stating that we continually break the law of gravity: 
"Do we not suspend or overcome the law of gravitation every 
day? Every time we move a foot or lift a weight we temporarily 
overcome one of the most universal of natural laws and yet the 
world is not disturbed.” (Since Bryan gave this address hundreds 
of times, I assume that people tried to explain to him the differ- 
ence between laws and events, or reminded him that without 
gravity, our raised foot would go off into space. I must conclude 
that he didn’t care because the fine conveyed a certain rhetorical 


oomph.) He also explicitly defended the suppression of under- 
standing in the service of moral good: 

If you ask me if I understand everything in the Bible, I an- 
swer no, but if we will try to live up to what we do under- 
stand, we will be kept so busy doing good that we will not 
have time to worry about the passages which we do not 

This attitude continually puzzled his friends and provided fod- 
der for his enemies. One detractor wrote: “By much talking and 
little thinking his mentality ran dry.” To the same effect, but with 
kindness, a friend and supporter wrote that Bryan was “almost 
unable to think in the sense in which you and I use that word. 
Vague ideas floated through his mind but did not unite to form 
any system or crystallize into a definite practical position.” 

Bryan’s long-standing approach to evolution rested upon a 
threefold error. First, he made the common mistake of confusing 
the fact of evolution with the Darwinian explanation of its mecha- 
nism. He then misinterpreted natural selection as a martial the- 
ory of survival by battle and destruction of enemies. Finally, he 
made the logical error of arguing that Darwinism implied the 
moral virtuousness of such deathly struggle. He wrote in the 
Pnnce of Peace ( 1 904) : 

The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his pres- 
ent perfection by the operation of the law of hate — the mer- 
ciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the 
weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is 
any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn back- 
ward toward the beast in proportion as we substitute the law 
of love. I prefer to believe that love rather than hatred is the 
law of development. 

And to the sociologist E. A. Ross, he said in 1906 that “such a 
conception of man’s origin would weaken the cause of democracy 
and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth.” He per- 
sisted in this uneasiness until World War I, when two events gal- 
vanized him into frenzied action. First, he learned that the martial 


view of Darwinism had been invoked by most German intellectu- 
als and military leaders as a justification for war and future domi- 
nation. Second, he feared the growth of skepticism at home, 
particularly as a source of possible moral weakness in the face of 
German militarism. 

Bryan united his previous doubts with these new fears into a 
campaign against evolution in the classroom. We may question 
the quality of his argument, but we cannot deny that he rooted his 
own justifications in his lifelong zeal for progressive causes. In 
this crucial sense, his last hurrah does not nullify, but rather con- 
tinues, all the applause that came before. Consider the three 
principal foci of his campaign, and their links to his populist past: 

1. For peace and compassion against militarism and murder. “I 
learned,” Bryan wrote, “that it was Darwinism that was at the 
basis of that damnable doctrine that might makes right that had 
spread over Germany.” 

2. For fairness and justice toward farmers and workers and 
against exploitation for monopoly and profit. Darwinism, Bryan 
argued, had convinced so many entrepreneurs about the virtue of 
personal gain that government now had to protect the weak and 
poor from an explosion of anti-Christian moral decay: “In the 
United States,” he wrote, 

pure-food laws have become necessary to keep manufactur- 
ers from poisoning their customers; child labor laws have 
become necessary to keep employers from dwarfing the 
bodies, minds and souls of children; anti-trust laws have 
become necessary to keep overgrown corporations from 
strangling smaller competitors, and we are still in a death 
grapple with profiteers and gamblers in farm products. 

3. For absolute rule of majority opinion against imposing 
elites. Christian belief still epjoyed widespread majority support 
in America, but college education was eroding a consensus that 
once ensured compassion within democracy. Bryan cited studies 
showing that only 15 percent of college male freshmen harbored 
doubts about God, but that 40 percent of graduates had become 
skeptics. Darwinism, and its immoral principle of domination by a 
selfish elite, had fueled this skepticism. Bryan railed against this 


insidious undermining of morality by a minority of intellectuals, 
and he vowed to fight fire with fire. If they worked through the 
classroom, he would respond in kind and ban their doctrine from 
the public schools. The majority of Americans did not accept 
human evolution, and had a democratic right to proscribe its 

Let me pass on this third point. Bryan’s contention strikes at 
the heart of academic freedom, and I have often treated this sub- 
ject in previous essays. Scientific questions cannot be decided by 
majority vote. I merely record that Bryan embedded his curious 
argument in his own concept of populism. “The taxpayers,” he 

have a right to say what shall be taught ... to direct or 
dismiss those whom they employ as teachers and school 
authorities. . . . The hand that writes the paycheck rules the 
school, and a teacher has no right to teach that which his 
employers object to. 

But what of Bryan’s first two arguments about the influence of 
Darwinism on militarism and domestic exploitation? We detect 
the touch of the Philistine in Bryan’s claims, but I think we must 
also admit that he had identified something deeply troubling — 
and that the fault does fie partly with scientists and their acolytes. 

Bryan often stated that two books had fueled his transition 
from laissez-faire to vigorous action: Headquarters Nights, by Ver- 
non L. Kellogg (1917), and The Science of Power, by Benjamin Kidd 
(1918). I fault Harvard University for many things, but all are 
overbalanced by its greatest glory — its unparalleled resources. 
Half an hour after I needed these obscure books if I ever hoped to 
hold the key to Bryan’s activities, I had extracted them from the 
depths of Widener Library. I found them every bit as riveting as 
Bryan bad, and I came to understand his fears, even to agree in 
part (though not, of course, with his analysis or his remedies). 

Vernon Kellogg was an entomologist and perhaps the leading 
teacher of evolution in America (he held a professorship at Stan- 
ford and wrote a major textbook, Evolution and Animal Life, with 
his mentor and Darwin’s leading disciple in America, David Starr 
Jordan, ichthyologist and president of Stanford University). Dur- 


ing the First World War, while America maintained official neu- 
trality, Kellogg became a high official in the international, non- 
partisan effort for Belgian relief, a cause officially “tolerated" by 
Germany. In this capacity, he was posted at the headquarters of 
the German Great General Staff, the only American on the prem- 
ises. Night after night, he listened to dinner discussions and argu- 
ments, sometimes in the presence of the Kaiser himself, among 
Germany’s highest military officers. Headquarters Nights is Kel- 
logg’s account of these exchanges. He arrived in Europe as a 
pacifist, but left committed to the destruction of German milita- 
rism by force. 

Kellogg was appalled, above all, at the justification for war and 
German supremacy advanced by these officers, many of whom 
had been university professors before the war. They not only 
proposed an evolutionary rationale but advocated a particularly 
crude form of natural selection, defined as inexorable, bloody 

Professor von Flussen is Neo-Darwinian, as are most Ger- 
man biologists and natural philosophers. The creed of the 
Allmacht [“all might” or omnipotence] of a natural selection 
based on violent and competitive struggle is the gospel of 
the German intellectuals; all else is illusion and anathema. 

. . . This struggle not only must go on, for that is the natural 
law, but it should go on so that this natural law may work 
out in its cruel, inevitable way the salvation of the human 
species. . . . That human group which is in the most ad- 
vanced evolutionary stage . . . should win in the struggle for 
existence, and this struggle should occur precisely that the 
various types may be tested, and the best not only pre- 
served, but put in position to impose its kind of social orga- 
nization — its Kultur — on the others, or, alternatively, to 
destroy and replace them. This is the disheartening kind of 
argument that I faced at Headquarters. . . . Add the addi- 
tional assumption that the Germans are the chosen race, 
and that German social and political organization the cho- 
sen type of human community life, and you have a wall of 
logic and conviction that you can break your head against 
but can never shatter — by headwork. You long for the mus- 
cles of Samson. 


Kellogg, of course, found in this argument only “horrible aca- 
demic casuistry and . . . conviction that the individual is nothing, 
the state everything." Bryan conflated a perverse interpretation 
with the thing itself and affirmed his worst fears about the pollut- 
ing power of evolution. 

Benjamin Kidd was an English commentator highly respected 
in both academic and lay circles. His book Social Evolution (1894) 
was translated into a dozen languages and as widely read as any- 
thing ever published on the implications of evolution. In The Sci- 
ence of Power (1918), his posthumous work, Kidd constructs a 
curious argument that, in a very different way from Kellogg’s, 
also fueled Bryan’s dread. Kidd, a philosophical idealist, believed 
that life must move toward progress by rejecting material strug- 
gle and individual benefit. Like the German militarists, but to 
excoriate rather than to praise, Kidd identified Darwinism with 
these impediments to progress. In a chapter entitled “The Great 
Pagan Retrogression,” Kidd presented a summary of his entire 

1 . Darwin’s doctrine of force rekindled the most dangerous of 
human tendencies — our pagan soul, previously (but imperfectly) 
suppressed for centuries by Christianity and its doctrines of love 
and renunciation: 

The hold which the theories of the Origin of Species obtained 
on the popular mind in the West is one of the most remark- 
able incidents in the history of human thought. . . . Every- 
where throughout civilization an almost inconceivable 
influence was given to the doctrine of force as the basis of 
legal authority. . . . 

For centuries the Western pagan had struggled with the 
ideals of a religion of subordination and renunciation com- 
ing to him from the past. For centuries he had been bored 
almost beyond endurance with ideals of the world pre- 
sented to him by the Churches of Christendom. . . . But here 
was a conception of life which stirred to its depths the inher- 
itance in him from past epochs of time. . . . This was the 
world which the masters of force comprehended. The 
pagan heart of the West sang within itself again in atavistic 



2. In England and America, Darwinism’s worst influence lay in 
its justification for industrial exploitation as an expression of nat- 
ural selection (“social Darwinism” in its pure form): 

The prevailing social system, born as it had been in strug- 
gle, and resting as it did in the last resort on war and on the 
toil of an excluded proletariat, appeared to have become 
clothed with a new and final kind of authority. 

3. In Germany, Darwin’s doctrine became a justification for 

Darwin’s theories came to be openly set out in political and 
military textbooks as the full justification for war and highly 
organized schemes of national policy in which the doctrine 
of force became the doctrine of Right. 

4. Civilization can only advance by integration: The essence of 
Darwinism is division by force for individual advantage. Social 
progress demands the “subordination of the individual to the 
universal” via “the iron ethic of Renunciation.” 

5. Civilization can only be victorious by suppressing our pagan 
soul and its Darwinian justification: 

It is the psychic and spiritual forces governing the social 
integration in which the individual is being subordinated to 
the universal which have become the winning forces in evo- 

This characterization of evolution has been asserted in many 
contexts for nearly 1 50 years — by German militarists, by Kidd, by 
hosts of the vicious and the duped, the self-serving and the well- 
meaning. But it remains deeply and appallingly wrong for three 
basic reasons. 

1 . Evolution means only that all organisms are united by ties of 
genealogical descent. This definition says nothing about the 
mechanism of evolutionary change: In principle, externally di- 
rected upward striving might work as well as the caricatured 
straw man of bloody Darwinian battle to the death. The objec- 
tions, then, are to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, not to 
evolution itself. 


2. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is an abstract argument 
about a metaphorical “struggle” to leave more offspring in sub- 
sequent generations, not a statement about murder and mayhem. 
Direct elimination of competitors is one pathway to Darwinian 
advantage, but another might reside in cooperation through so- 
cial ties within a species or by symbiosis between species. For 
every act of killing and division, natural selection can also favor 
cooperation and integration in other circumstances. Nineteenth- 
century interpreters did generally favor a martial view of selec- 
tion, but to every militarist, we may counterpose a Prince 
Kropotkin (see Essay 22), urging that the “real” Darwinism be 
recognized as a doctrine of integration and “mutual aid.” 

3. Whatever Darwinism represents on the playing fields of na- 
ture (and by representing both murder and cooperation at dif- 
ferent times, it upholds neither as nature’s principal way), 
Darwinism implies nothing about moral conduct. We do not find 
our moral values in the actions of nature. One might argue, as 
Thomas Henry Huxley did in his famous essay “Evolution and 
Ethics,” that Darwinism embodies a law of battle, and that human 
morality must be defined as the discovery of an opposite path. Or 
one might argue, as grandson Julian did, that Darwinism is a law 
of cooperation and that moral conduct should follow nature. If 
two such brilliant and committed Darwinians could come to such 
opposite opinions about evolution and ethics, I can only con- 
clude that Darwinism offers no moral guidance. 

But Bryan made this common threefold error and continually 
characterized evolution as a doctrine of battle and destruction of 
the weak, a dogma that undermined any decent morality and de- 
served banishment from the classroom. In a rhetorical flourish 
near the end of his “Last Evolution Argument,” the final speech 
that he prepared with great energy, but never had an opportunity 
to present at the Scopes trial, Bryan proclaimed: 

Again force and love meet face to face, and the question 
“What shall I do with Jesus?” must be answered. A bloody, 
brutal doctrine — Evolution — demands, as the rabble did 
nineteen hundred years ago, that He be crucified. 

I wish I could stop here with a snide comment on Bryan as 
yahoo and a ringing defense for science’s proper interpretation 


of Darwinism. Bui I cannot, for Bryan was right in one crucial 
way. Lord only knows, he understood precious little about sci- 
ence, and he wins no medals for logic of argument. But when he 
said that Darwinism had been widely protrayed as a defense of 
war, domination, and domestic exploitation, he was right. Scien- 
tists would not be to blame for this if we had always maintained 
proper caution in interpretation and proper humility in resisting 
the extension of our findings into inappropriate domains. But 
many of these insidious and harmful misinterpretations had been 
promoted by scientists. Several of the German generals who 
traded arguments with Kellogg had been university professors of 

Just one example from a striking source. In his “Last Evolution 
Argument,” Bryan charged that evolutionists had misused sci- 
ence to present moral opinions about the social order as though 
they represented facts of nature. 

By paralyzing the hope of reform, it discourages those 
who labor for the improvement of man’s condition. ... Its 
only program for man is scientific breeding, a system under 
which a few supposedly superior intellects, self-appointed, 
would direct the mating and the movements of the mass of 
mankind — an impossible system! 

I cannot fault Bryan here. One of the saddest chapters in all the 
history of science involves the extensive misuse of data to sup- 
port biological determinism, the claim that social inequalities 
based on race, sex, or class cannot be altered because they reflect 
the innate and inferior genetic endowments of the disadvantaged 
(see my book The Mismeasure of Man). It is bad enough when sci- 
entists misidentify their own social preferences as facts of nature 
in their technical writings and even worse when writers of text- 
books, particularly for elementary- and high-school students, 
promulgate these (or any) social doctrines as the objective End- 
ings of science. 

Two years ago, I obtained a copy of the book that John Scopes 
used to teach evolution to the children of Dayton, Tennessee — A 
Civic Biology, by George William Hunter (1914). Many writers 
have looked into this book to read the section on evolution that 
Scopes taught and Bryan quoted. But I found something disturb- 


ing in another chapter that has eluded previous commentators — 
an egregious claim that science holds the moral answer to ques- 
tions about mental retardation, or social poverty so 
misinterpreted. Hunter discusses the infamous Jukes and Kal- 
likaks, the “classic,” and false, cases once offered as canonical 
examples of how bad heredity runs in families. Under the head- 
ing “Parasitism and Its Cost to Society — the Remedy,” he writes: 

Hundreds of families such as those described above exist 
today, spreading disease, immorality and crime to all parts 
of this country. The cost to society of such families is very 
severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on 
other plants or animals, these families have become para- 
sitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupt- 
ing, stealing or spreading disease, but they are actually 
protected and cared for by the state out of public money. 
Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They 
take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are 
true parasites. 

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill 
them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not 
allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the 
sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways pre- 
venting intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating 
such a low and degenerate race. 

Bryan had the wrong solution, but he had correctly identified a 

Science is a discipline, and disciplines are exacting. All main- 
tain rules of conduct and self-policing. All gain strength, respect, 
and acceptance by working honorably within their bounds and 
knowing when transgression upon other realms counts as hubris 
or folly. Science, as a discipline, tries to understand the factual 
state of nature and to explain and coordinate these data into 
general theories. Science teaches us many wonderful and disturb- 
ing things — facts that need weighing when we try to develop stan- 
dards of conduct and ponder the great questions of morals and 
aesthetics. But science cannot answer these questions alone and 
cannot dictate social policy. 

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by 


the discipline. We may therefore be sorely tempted to misuse that 
power in furthering a personal prejudice or social goal — why not 
provide that extra oomph by extending the umbrella of science 
over a personal preference in ethics or politics? But we cannot, 
lest we lose the very respect that tempted us in the first place. 

If this plea sounds like the conservative and pessimistic re- 
trenching of a man on the verge of middle age, I reply that I 
advocate this care and restraint in order to demonstrate the enor- 
mous power of science. We live with poets and politicians, 
preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and 
all are valid in their proper domains. The world is too complex 
and interesting for one way to hold all the answers. Besides, high- 
falutin morality aside, if we continue to overextend the bounda- 
ries of science, folks like Bryan will nail us properly for their own 
insidious purposes. 

We should give the last word to Vernon Kellogg, the great 
teacher who understood the principle of strength in limits, and 
who listened with horror to the ugliest misuses of Darwinism. 
Kellogg properly taught in his textbook (with David Starr Jordan) 
that Darwinism cannot provide moral answers: 

Some men who call themselves pessimists because they can- 
not read good into the operations of nature forget that they 
cannot read evil. In morals the law of competition no more 
justifies personal, official, or national selfishness or brutality 
than the law of gravitation justifies the shooting of a bird. 

Kellogg also possessed the cardinal trait lacked both by Bryan 
and by many of his evolutionary adversaries: humility in the face 
of our profound ignorance about nature’s ways, combined with 
that greatest of all scientific privileges, the joy of the struggle to 
know. In his greatest book, Darwinism Today (1907), Kellogg 

We are ignorant, terribly, immensely ignorant. And our 
work is, to learn. To observe, to experiment, to tabulate, to 
induce, to deduce. Biology was never a clearer or more in- 
viting field for fascinating, joyful, hopeful work. 

Amen, brother! 



As I was writing this essay, I learned of the untimely death from 
cancer (at age forty-seven) of Federal Judge William R. Overton 
of Arkansas. Judge Overton presided and wrote the decision in 
McLean v. Arkansas (January 5, 1982), the key episode that led to 
our final victory in the Supreme Court in June 1987. In this deci- 
sion, he struck down the Arkansas law mandating equal time for 
“creation science." This precedent encouragedjudge Duplantier 
to strike down the similar Louisiana law by summary judgment 
(without trial). The Supreme Court then affirmed this summary 
judgment in their 1987 decision. (Since Arkansas and Louisiana 
had passed the only anti-evolution statutes in the country, these 
decisions close the issue.) Judge Overton’s brilliant and beauti- 
fully crafted decision is the finest legal document ever written 
about this question — far surpassing anything that the Scopes trial 
generated, or any document arising from the two Supreme Court 
cases ( Epperson v. Arkansas of 1968, striking down Scopes-era laws 
that banned evolution outright, and the 1987 decision banning 
the “equal time” strategy). Judge Overton's definitions of science 
are so cogent and clearly expressed that we can use his words as a 
model for our own proceedings. Science, the leading journal of 
American professional science, published Judge Overton's deci- 
sion verbatim as a major article. 

I was a witness in McLean v. Arkansas (see Essay 2 1 in Hen r Teeth 
and Horse's Toes). I never spoke to Judge Overton personally, and 
I spent only part of a day in his courtroom. Yet, when I fell ill with 
cancer the next year, I learned from several sources that Judge 
Overton had heard and had inquired about my health from mu- 
tual acquaintances, asking that his best wishes be conveyed to me. 
I mourn the passing of this brilliant and compassionate man, and 
I dedicate this essay to his memory. 

An Essay on a Pig Roast 

ON independence day, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio, Jack 
Dempsey won the heavyweight crown by knocking out Jess Wil- 
lard in round three. (W illard, the six-foot six-inch wheat farmer 
from Kansas, was “the great white hope” who, four years earlier 
in Havana, had finally KO’d Jack Johnson, the first black heavy- 
weight champ, and primary thorn in the side of racist America.) 
Dempsey ruled the ring for seven years, until Gene Tunney 
whipped him in 1926. 

Yet during Dempsey’s domination of pugilism in its active 
mode, some mighty impressive fighters were squaring away on 
other, less physical but equally contentious turfs. One prominent 
battle occurred entirely within Dempsey’s reign, beginning with 
William Jennings Bryan’s decision in 1920 to launch a nationwide 
legislative campaign against the teaching of evolution and cul- 
minating in the Scopes trial of 1925. The main bout may have 
pitted Bryan against Clarence Darrow at the trial itself, but a 
preliminary skirmish in 1922, before any state legislature had 
passed an anti-evolution law, had brought two equally formida- 
ble foes together — Bryan again, but this time against Henry Fair- 
field Osborn, head of the American Museum of Natural History. 
In some respects, the Bryan-Osborn confrontation was more dra- 
matic than the famous main event three years later. One can 
hardly imagine two more powerful but more different men: the 
arrogant, patrician, archconservative Osborn versus the folksy 
“Great Commoner” from Nebraska. Moreover, while Darrow 
maintained a certain respect based on genuine affection for 



Bryan (or at least for his earlier greatness), I detect nothing but 
pure venom and contempt from Osborn. 

The enemy within, as the old saying goes, is always more dan- 
gerous than the enemy without. An atheist might have laughed at 
Bryan or merely felt bewildered. But Osborn was a dedicated 
theist and a great paleontologist who viewed evolution as the 
finest expression of God’s intent. For Osborn, Bryan was pervert- 
ing both science and the highest notion of divinity. (Darrow later 
selected Osborn as one of his potential witnesses in the Scopes 
trial not only because Osborn was so prominent, socially as well 
as scientifically, but primarily because trial strategy dictated that 
religiously devout evolutionists could blunt Bryan’s attack on sci- 
ence as intrinsically godless.) 

On February 26, 1922, Bryan published an article in the Sun- 
day New York Times to further his legislative campaign against the 
teaching of evolution. Bryan, showing some grasp of the tradi- 
tional parries against Darwin, but constantly confusing doubts 
about the mechanism of natural selection with arguments against 
the fact of evolution itself, rested his case upon a supposed lack of 
direct evidence for the claims of science: 

The real question is. Did God use evolution as His plan? If it 
could be shown that man, instead of being made in the 
image of God, is a development of beasts we would have to 
accept it, regardless of its effect, for truth is truth and must 
prevail. But when there is no proof we have a right to con- 
sider the effect of the acceptance of an unsupported hypoth- 

The Times, having performed its civic duty by granting Bryan a 
platform, promptly invited Osborn to prepare a reply for the 
following Sunday. Osborn’s answer, published on March 5 and 
reissued as a slim volume by Charles Scribner’s Sons under the 
title Evolution and Religion, integrated two arguments into a single 
thesis: The direct, primarily geological evidence for evolution is 
overwhelming, and evolution is not incompatible with religion in 
any case. As a motto for his approach, and a challenge to Bryan 
from a source accepted by both men as unimpeachable, Osborn 
cited a passage from Job (12:8): . . speak to the earth, and it 


shall teach thee.” When, on the eve of the Scopes trial, Osborn 
expanded his essay into a longer attack on Bryan, he dedicated 
the new book to John Scopes and chose a biting parody ofjob for 
his title — The Earth Speaks to Bryan (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 

When a man poses such a direct challenge to an adversary, 
nothing could possibly be more satisfying than a quick confirma- 
tion from an unanticipated source. On February 25, 1922, just 
the day before Bryan’s Times article, Harold J. Cook, a rancher 
and consulting geologist, had written to Osborn: 

I have had here, for some little time, a molar tooth from the 
Upper, or Hipparion phase of the Snake Creek Beds, that 
very closely approaches the human type. . . . Inasmuch as 
you are particularly interested in this problem and, in col- 
laboration with Dr. Gregory and others, are in the best posi- 
tion of anyone to accurately determine the relationships of 
this tooth, if it can be done, I will be glad to send it on to 
you, should you care to examine and study it. 

In those bygone days of an efficient two-penny post, Osborn 
probably received this letter on the very morning following 
Bryan’s diatribe or, at most, a day or two later. Osborn obtained 
the tooth itself on March 14, and, with his usual precision (and 
precisely within the ten-word limit for the basic rate), promptly 
telegraphed Cook: “Tooth just arrived safely. Looks very promis- 
ing. Will report immediately.” Later that day, Osborn wrote to 

The instant your package arrived, I sat down with the tooth, 
in my window, and I said to myself: “It looks one hundred 
per cent anthropoid.” I then took the tooth into Dr. Mat- 
thew’s room and we have been comparing it with all the 
books, all the casts and all the drawings, with the conclusion 
that it is the last right upper molar tooth of some higher 
Primate. . . . We may cool down tomorrow, but it looks to 
me as if the first anthropoid ape of America has been found. 

But Osborn’s enthusiasm only warmed as he studied the tooth 
and considered the implications. The human fossil record had 


improved sufficiently to become a source of strength, rather than 
an embarrassment, to evolutionists, with Cro-Magnon and Nean- 
derthal in Europe (not to mention the fraudulent Piltdown, then 
considered genuine and strongly supported by Osborn) and Pi- 
thecanthropus (now called Homo erectus) in East Asia. But no fossils 
of higher apes or human ancestors had ever been found any- 
where in the Americas. This absence, in itself, posed no special 
problem to evolutionists. Elumans had evolved in Asia or Africa, 
and the Americas were an isolated world, accessible primarily by 
a difficult route of migration over the Bering land bridge. Indeed, 
to this day, ancient humans are unknown in the New World, and 
most anthropologists accept a date of 20,000 years or considera- 
bly less (probably more like 1 1,000) for the first peopling of our 
hemisphere. Moreover, since these first immigrants were mem- 
bers of our stock, Homo sapiens, no ancestral species have ever 
been found — and none probably ever will — in the Americas. 

Still, an American anthropoid would certainly be a coup for 
Osborn’s argument that the earth spoke to Bryan in the language 
of evolution, not to mention the salutary value of a local product 
for the enduring themes of hoopla, chauvinism, and flag-waving. 

Therefore, Osborn’s delight — and his confidence — in this 
highly worn and eroded molar tooth only increased. Within a 
week or two, he was ready to proclaim the first momentous dis- 
covery of a fossil higher primate, perhaps even a direct human 
ancestor, in America. He honored our hemisphere in choosing 
the name Hesperopithecus, or “ape of the western world.” On April 
25, less than two months after Bryan’s attack, Osborn presented 
Hesperopithecus in two simultaneous papers with the same title and 
different content: one in the prestigious Proceedings of the National 
Academy of Sciences; the other, containing figures and technical 
descriptions, in the Novitates of the American Museum of Natural His- 
tory — "Hesperopithecus, the First Anthropoid Primate Found in 

Hesperopithecus was good enough news in the abstract, but Os- 
born particularly exulted in the uncannily happy coincidences of 
both time and place. Cook had probably written his letter at the 
very moment that the compositors were setting Bryan’s oratory 
in type. Moreover, for the crowning irony, Hesperopithecus had 
been found in Nebraska — home state of the Great Commoner! If 
God had permitted a paleontologist to invent a fossil with maxi- 


mal potential to embarrass Bryan, no one could have bettered 
Hesperopithecus for rhetorical impact. Needless to say, this pre- 
ciously ironical situation was not lost on Osborn, who inserted 
the following gloat of triumph into his article for the staid Proceed- 
ings— about as incongruous in this forum as the erotic poetry of 
the Song of Songs between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. 

It has been suggested humorously that the animal should be 
named Bryopithecus after the most distinguished Primate 
which the State of Nebraska has thus far produced. It is 
certainly singular that this discovery is announced within six 
weeks of the day (March 5, 1922) that the author advised 
William Jennings Bryan to consult a certain passage in the 
Book of Job, “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee,” 
and it is a remarkable coincidence that the first earth to 
speak on this subject is the sandy earth of the Middle Plio- 
cene Snake Creek deposits of western Nebraska. 

Old Robert Burns certainly knew his stuff when he lamented 
the frequent unraveling of the best laid plans of mice and men. 
Unless you browse in the marginal genre of creationist tracts, you 
will probably not have encountered Hesperopithecus in anything 
written during the past fifty years (except, perhaps, as a caution- 
ary sentence in a textbook or a paragraph on abandoned hopes in 
a treatise on the history of science). The reign of Hesperopithecus 
was brief and contentious. In 1927, Osborn’s colleague W’illiam 
King Giegory, the man identified in Cook’s original letter as the 
best-qualified expert on primate teeth, threw in the towel with an 
article in Science: "Hesperopithecus Apparently not an Ape nor a 
Man.” Expeditions sent out by Osborn in the summers of 1925 
and 1926 to collect more material of Hesperopithecus , and to test 
the hypothesis of primate affinity, had amassed a large series to 
complement the original tooth. But this abundance also doomed 
Osborn s interpretation — for the worn and eroded Hesperopithecus 
tooth, when compared with others in better and more diagnostic 
condition, clearly belonged not to a primate but to the extinct 
peccary Prosthennops. 

One can hardly blame modern creationists for making hay of 
this brief but interesting episode in paleontology. After all, 
they’re only getting their fair licks at Osborn, who used the origi- 


nal interpretation to ridicule and lambaste their erstwhile cham- 
pion Bryan. I don’t think I have ever read a modern creationist 
tract that doesn’t feature the tale of “Nebraska Man” in a feint 
from our remarkable record of genuine human fossils, and an 
attempted KO of evolution with the one-two punch of Piltdown 
and Hesperopithecus. I write this essay to argue that Nebraska man 
tells a precisely opposite tale, one that should give creationists 
pause (though I do admit the purely rhetorical value of a pro- 
claimed primate ancestor later exposed as a fossil pig). 

The story of Hesperopithecus was certainly embarrassing to Os- 
born and Gregory in a personal sense, but the sequence of dis- 
covery, announcement, testing, and refutation — all done with 
admirable dispatch, clarity, and honesty — shows science working 
at its very best. Science is a method for testing claims about the 
natural world, not an immutable compendium of absolute truths. 
The fundamentalists, by “knowing” the answers before they 
start, and then forcing nature into the straitjacket of their dis- 
credited preconceptions, lie outside the domain of science — or of 
any honest intellectual inquiry. The actual story of Hesperopithecus 
could teach creationists a great deal about science as properly 
practiced if they chose to listen, rather than to scan the surface for 
cheap shots in the service of debate pursued for immediate ad- 
vantage, rather than interest in truth. 

When we seek a textbook case for the proper operation of sci- 
ence, the correction of certain error offers far more promise than 
the establishment of probable truth. Confirmed hunches, of 
course, are more upbeat than discredited hypotheses. Since the 
worst traditions of “popular” writing falsely equate instruction 
with sweetness and light, our promotional literature abounds 
with insipid tales in the heroic mode, although tough stories of 
disappointment and loss give deeper insight into a methodology 
that the celebrated philosopher of science Karl Popper once la- 
beled as “conjecture and refutation.” 

Therefore, I propose that we reexamine the case of Nebraska 
Man, not as an embarrassment to avoid in polite company, but as 
an exemplar complete with lessons and ample scope for the pri- 
mary ingredient of catharsis and popular appeal — the opportu- 
nity to laugh at one’s self. Consider the story as a chronological 
sequence of five episodes: 

1. Proposal. Harold Cook’s fossil tooth came from a deposit 


about 10 million years old and filled with mammals of Asiatic 
ancestry. Since paleontologists of Osborn’s generation believed 
that humans and most other higher primates had evolved in Asia, 
the inclusion of a fossil ape in a fauna filled with Asian migrants 
seemed entirely reasonable. Osborn wrote to Cook a month 
before publication: 

The animal is certainly a new genus of anthropoid ape, 
probably an animal which wandered over here from Asia 
with the large south Asiatic element which has recently been 
discovered in our fauna. ... It is one of the greatest sur- 
prises in the history of American paleontology. 

Osborn then announced the discovery of Hesperopithecus in 
three publications — technical accounts in the American Museum 
Novitates (April 25, 1922) and in the British journal Nature (Au- 
gust 26, 1922), and a shorter notice in the Proceedings of the Na- 
tional Academy of Sciences (August 1922, based on an oral report 
delivered in April). 

2. Proper doubt and statement of alternatives. Despite all the hoopla 
and later recrimination, Osborn never identified Hesperopithecus 
as a human ancestor. 4 he tooth had been heavily worn during 
life, obliterating the distinctive pattern of cusps and crown. Con- 
sidering both this extensive wear and the further geological ero- 
sion of the tooth following the death of its bearer, Osborn knew 
that he could make no certain identification. He did not cast 
his net of uncertainty widely enough, however, for he labeled 
Hesperopithecus as an undoubted higher primate. But he re- 
mained agnostic about the crucial issue of closer affinity with the 
various ape branches or the human twig of the primate evolution- 
ary tree. 

Osborn described the tooth of Hesperopithecus as “a second or 
third upper molar of the right side of a new genus and species of 
anthropoid.’’ Osborn did lean toward human affinity, based both 
on the advice of his colleague Gregory (see point three below) 
and, no doubt, on personal hope and preference: “On the whole, 
we think its nearest resemblances are with . . . men rather than 
with apes.” But his formal description left this crucial question 
entirely open: 



Homo sapiens ( A/ dm.. SnduLru) 

An illustration from Osborn's article of 1922, showing 
the strong similarity between worn teeth of Hespero- 
pithecus and modern humans. nf,g. no. 2A17804. cour- 

The Hesperopithecus molar cannot be said to resemble any 
known type of human molar very closely. It is certainly not 
closely related to Pithecanthropus erectus in the structure of 
the molar crown. ... It is therefore a new and independent 
type of Primate, and we must seek more material before we 
can determine its relationships. 

3. Encouragement of further study. If Osborn had been grand- 
standing with evidence known to be worthless or indecipherable, 
he would have made his public point and then shut up after lock- 
ing his useless or incriminating evidence away in a dark drawer in 
the back room of a large museum collection. Osborn proceeded 
in exactly the opposite way. He did everything possible to en- 
courage further study and debate, hoping to resolve his own 
strong uncertainties. (Osborn, by the way, was probably the most 
pompous, self-assured S.O.B. in the history of American paleon- 
tology, a regal patrician secure in his birthright, rather than a 
scrappy, self-made man. He once published a book devoted en- 


tirely to photographs of his medals and awards and to a list of 
his publications; as an excuse for such vanity, he claimed that 
he harbored only a selfless desire to inspire young scientists by 
illustrating the potential rewards of a fine profession. “Osborn 
stories’’ are still told by the score wherever vertebrate paleon- 
tologists congregate. And when a man’s anecdotes outlive him by 
more than half a century, you know that he was larger than life. 
1 hus, the real news about Hesperopithecus must be that, for once, 
Osborn was expressing genuine puzzlement and uncertainty.) 

In any case, Osborn reached out to colleagues throughout the 
world. He made numerous casts of Hesperopithecus and sent them 
to twenty-six universities and museums in Europe and North 
America. As a result, he was flooded with alternative interpreta- 
tions from the world’s leading paleoanthropologists. He received 
sharp criticisms from both sides: from Arthur Smith Woodward, 
descnber of Piltdown, who thought that Hesperopithecus was a bear 
(and I don’t mean metaphorically), and from G. Elliot Smith, 
another “hero” of Piltdown, who became too enthusiastic about 
the humanity of Osborn’s tooth, causing considerable later em- 
barrassment and providing creationists with their “hook.” Os- 
born tried to rein both sides in, beginning his Nature article with 
these words: 

Every discovery directly or indirectly relating to the pre- 
history of man attracts world-wide attention and is apt to be 
received either with too great optimism or with too great 
incredulity. One of my friends, Prof. G. Elliot Smith, has 
perhaps shown too great optimism in his most interesting 
newspaper and magazine articles on Hesperopithecus, while 
another of my friends. Dr. A. Smith Woodward, has shown 
too much incredulity. 

Moreover, Osborn immediately enlisted his colleague W. K. 
Gregory, the acknowledged local expert on primate teeth, to pre- 
pare a more extensive study of Hesperopithecus, including a f ormal 
comparison of the tooth with molars of all great apes and human 
fossils. Gregory responded with two detailed, technical articles, 
both published in 1923 with the collaboration of Milo Heilman. 

Gregory followed Osborn in caution and legitimate expression 
of doubt. He began his first article by dividing the characters of 


the tooth into three categories: those due to wear, to subsequent 
erosion, and to the genuine taxonomic uniqueness of Hespero- 
pithecus. Since the first two categories, representing information 
lost, tended to overwhelm the last domain of diagnostic biology, 
Gregory could reach no conclusion beyond a basic placement 
among the higher primates: 

The type of Hesperopilhecus haroldcookii represents a hitherto 
unknown form of higher primates. It combines characters 
seen in the molars of the chimpanzee, of Pithecanthropus, and 
of man, but, in view of the extremely worn and eroded state 
of the crown, it is hardly safe to affirm more than that Hes- 
peropithecus was structurally related to all three. 

In the second and longer article, Gregory and Heilman stuck 
their necks out a bit more — but in opposite directions. Heilman 
opted for the human side; Gregory for affinity with "the gorilla- 
chimpanzee group.” 

4. Gathering of additional data. Osborn knew, of course, that a 
worn and eroded tooth would never resolve the dilemma of Hes- 
peropithecus, no matter how many casts were made or how many 
paleontologists peered down their microscopes. The answers lay 
in more data buried in the sands of Nebraska, and Osborn 
pledged, in his diatribe against Bryan, to make the earth speak 

What shall we do with the Nebraska tooth? Shall we destroy 
it because it jars our long preconceived notion that the fam- 
ily of manlike apes never reached the Western world, or 
shall we endeavor to interpret it, to discover its real rela- 
tionship to the apes of Asia and of the more remote Africa. 

Or shall we continue our excavations, difficult and baffling 
as they are, in the confident hope, inspired by the admoni- 
tion of Job, that if we keep on speaking to the earth we shall 
in time have a more audible and distinct reply [from The 
Earth Speaks to Bryan, p. 43]. 

To his professional audiences in Nature, Osborn made the 
same pledge with more detail: “We are this season renewing the 
search with great vigor and expect to run every shovelful of loose 


river sand which comprises the deposit through a sieve of mesh 
fine enough to arrest such small objects as these teeth.” 

Thus, in the summers of 1925 and 1926, Osborn sent a collect- 
mg expedition, led by Albert 1 homson, to the Snake Creek beds 
of Nebraska. Several famous paleontologists visited the site and 
pitched in, including Barnum Brown, the great dinosaur collec- 
tor; Othenio Abel of Vienna (a dark figure who vitiated the mem- 
ory of his fine paleontological work by later activity in the 
Austrian Nazi party); and Osborn himself. They found abundant 
material to answer their doubts. The earth spoke both audibly 
and distinctly, but not in the tones that Osborn had anticipated. 

5. Retraction. After all this buildup and detail, the denouement 
can only be described as brief, simple, and conclusive. The fur- 
ther expeditions were blessed with success. Abundant new speci- 
mens destroyed Osborn’s dream for two reasons that could 
scarcely be challenged. First, the new specimens formed a series 
from teeth worn as profoundly as Hesperopithecus to others of the 
same species with crown and cusps intact. The diagnostic pattern 
of the unworn teeth proclaimed pig rather than primate. Second, 
the unworn teeth could not be distinguished from premolars 
firmly lesiding in a peccary s palate found during a previous ex- 
pedition. Osborn, who was never praised for a charitable nature, 
simply shut up and never mentioned Hesperopithecus again in his 
numerous succeeding articles on human ancestry. He had en- 
joyed the glory, but he let Gregory take the heat in a forthright 
retraction published in Science (December 16, 1927); 

Among other material the expedition secured a series of 
specimens which have led the writer to doubt his former 
identification of the type as the upper molar of an extinct 
primate, and to suspect that the type specimen oi Hesperopi- 
thecus haroldcookii may be an upper premolar of a species of 
Prosthennops, an extinct genus related to modern peccaries. 

Why should the detractors of science still be drawing such 
mileage from this simple story of a hypothesis swiftly refuted by 
science working well? I would divide the reasons into red her- 
rmgs and a smaller number of allowable points. The red herrings 
all center on rhetorical peculiarities that anyone skilled in debate 
could use to advantage. (Debate, remember, is an art form dedi- 


cated to the winning of arguments. Truth is one possible weapon, 
rarely the best, in such an enterprise.) Consider three good lines: 

1. “How can you believe those evolutionists if they can make 
monkeys out of themselves by calling a pig a monkey?” As a trope 
of rhetoric, given the metaphorical status of pigs in our culture, 
the true affinity of Hesperopithecus became a blessing for creation- 
ists. What could possibly sound more foolish than the misiden- 
tffication of a pig as a primate. My side might have been better oft 
if Hesperopithecus had been, say, a deer or an antelope (both mem- 
bers of the order Artiodactyla, along with pigs, and therefore 
equally far from primates). 

Yet anyone who has studied the dental anatomy of mammals 
knows immediately that this seemingly implausible mix-up of pig 
for primate is not only easy to understand but represents one of 
the classic and recurring confusions of the profession. The cheek 
teeth of pigs and humans are astonishingly and uncannily similar. 
(I well remember mixing them up more than once in my course 
on mammalian paleontology, long before I had ever heard the 
story of Hesperopithecus. ) Unworn teeth can be told apart by details 
of the cusps, but isolated and abraded teeth of older animals are 
very difficult to distinguish. The Hesperopithecus tooth, worn so flat 
and nearly to the roots, was a prime candidate for just such a 

A wonderfully ironic footnote to this point was unearthed by 
John Wolf and James S. Mellett in an excellent article on Ne- 
braska Man that served as the basis for my researches (see bibli- 
ography). In 1909, the genus Prosthennops was described by W. D. 
Matthew, Osborn’s other paleontological colleague at the Ameri- 
can Museum of Natural History, and — guess who — the same Har- 
old Cook who would find Hesperopithecus ten years later. They 
explicitly warned their colleagues about the possible confusion of 
these peccary teeth with the dentition of primates: 

The anterior molars and premolars of this genus of peccar- 
ies show a startling resemblance to the teeth of An- 
thropoidea, and might well be mistaken for them by anyone 
not familiar with the dentition of Miocene peccaries. 

2. “How can you believe those evolutionists if they can base an 
identification on a single worn tooth?” William Jennings Bryan, 


the wily old lawyer, remarked: “These men would destroy the 
Bible on evidence that would not convict a habitual criminal of a 

My rejoinder may seem like a cavil, but it really isn’t. Harold 
Cook did send but a single tooth to Osborn. (I do not know why 
he had not heeded his own previous warning of 1909. My guess 
would be that Cook played no part in writing the manuscript and 
that Matthew had been sole author of the statement. An old and 
admirable tradition grants joint authorship to amateur collectors 
who often find the material that professionals then exploit and 
describe. Matthew was the pro, Cook the experienced and sharp- 
eyed local collector.) Osborn sought comparative material in the 
Museum’s collection of fossil mammals and located a very similar 
tooth found in the same geological strata in 1908. He added this 
second tooth to the sample and based the genus Hesperopithecus 
on both specimens. (This second tooth had been found by W. D. 
Matthew, and we must again raise the question of why Matthew 
didn’t heed his own warning of 1909 about mixing up primates 
and peccaries. For Osborn showed both teeth to Matthew and 
won his assent for a probable primate identification. In his origi- 
nal description, Osborn wrote of this second tooth: “The speci- 
men belonged to an aged animal and is so water-worn that 
Doctor Matthew, while inclined to regard it as a primate, did not 
venture to describe it.”) 

I hus the old canard about basing a human reconstruction on a 
single tooth is false. The sample of Hesperopithecus included two 
teeth from the start. You might say that two is only minimally 
better than one, and still so far from a whole animal that any 
conclusion must be risible. Not so. One of anything can be a 
mistake, an oddball, an isolated peculiarity; two, on the other 
hand, is the beginning of a pattern. Second specimens always 
provide a great increment of respect. The Piltdown fraud, for 
example, did not take hold until the forgers concocted a second 

3. How can you believe those evolutionists if they reconstruct 
an entire man hair, skin, and all — from a single tooth?” On this 
issue, Osborn and Gregory were unjustly sandbagged by an over- 
zealous colleague. In England, G. Elliot Smith collaborated with 
the well-known scientific artist Amedee Forestier to produce a 
graphic reconstruction of a Hesperopithecus couple in a forest sur- 


The infamous restoration of Hesperopithecus published in the Illustrated 
London News in 1922. neg. no. 2A17487. courtesy department of library 


rounded by other members of the Snake Creek fauna. Forestier, 
of course, could learn nothing from the tooth and actually based 
his reconstruction on the conventional rendering of Pithecan- 
thropus, or Java man. 

Forestier’s figure is the one ridiculed and reproduced by crea- 
tionists, and who can blame them? The attempt to reconstruct an 
entire creature from a single tooth is absolute folly — especially in 
this case when the authors of Hesperopithecus had declined to de- 
cide whether their creature was ape or human. Osborn had ex- 
plicitly warned against such an attempt by pointing out how 
organs evolve at different rates, and how teeth of one type can be 
found in bodies of a different form. (Ironically, he cited Piltdown 
as an example of this phenomenon, arguing that, by teeth alone, 
the “man” would have been called an ape. How prescient in ret- 
rospect, since Piltdown is a fraud made of orangutan teeth and a 
human skull.) 

Thus, Osborn explicitly repudiated the major debating point 
continually raised by modern creationists — the nonsense of 
reconstructing an entire creature from a single tooth. He said so 


obliquely and with gentle satire in his technical article for Nature, 
complaining that G. E. Smith had shown “too great optimism in 
his most interesting newspaper and magazine articles on Hes- 
peropithecus. The New York Times reported a more direct quota- 
tion: “Such a drawing or ‘reconstruction’ would doubtless be 
only a figment of the imagination of no scientific value, and un- 
doubtedly inaccurate.” 

Among the smaller number of allowable points, I can hardly 
blame creationists for gloating over the propaganda value of this 
story, especially since Osborn bad so shamelessly used the origi- 
nal report to tweak Bryan. Tit for tat. 

I can specify only one possibly legitimate point of criticism 
against Osborn and Gregory. Perhaps they were hasty. Perhaps 
they should have waited and not published so quickly. Perhaps 
they should have sent out their later expedition before commit- 
ting anything to writing, for then the teeth would have been of- 
ficially identified as peccaries first, last, and always. Perhaps they 
proceeded too rapidly because they couldn’t resist such a nifty 
opportunity to score a rhetorical point at Bryan’s expense. I am 
not bothered by the small sample of only two teeth. Single teeth, 
when well preserved, can be absolutely diagnostic of a broad tax- 
onomic group. The argument for caution lay in the worn and 
eroded character of both premolars. Matthew had left the second 
tooth of 1908 in a museum drawer; why hadn’t Osborn shown 
similar restraint? 

But look at the case from a different angle. I he resolution of 
Hesperopithecus may have been personally embarrassing for Os- 
born and Gregory, but the denouement was only invigorating 
and positive for the institution of science. A puzzle had been 
noted and swiftly solved, though not in the manner anticipated by 
the original authors. In fact. I would argue that Osborn’s decision 
to publish, however poor his evidence and tentative his conclu- 
sions, was the most positive step he could have taken to secure a 
resolution. I he published descriptions were properly cautious 
and noncommittal. I hey focused attention on the specimens, 
provided a series of good illustrations and measurements, pro- 
voked a rash of hypotheses for interpretation, and inspired the 
subsequent study and collection that soon resolved the issue. If 
Osborn had left the molar in a museum drawer, as Matthew had 
for the second tooth found in 1908, persistent anomaly would 


have been the only outcome. Conjecture and refutation is a 
chancy game with more losers than winners. 

I have used the word irony too may times in this essay, for the 
story of Hesperopithecus is awash in this quintessential conse- 
quence of human foibles. But I must beg your indulgence for one 
last round. As their major pitch, modern fundamentalists argue 
that their brand of biblical literalism represents a genuine disci- 
pline called "scientific creationism.” They use the case of Ne- 
braska Man, in their rhetorical version, to bolster this claim, by 
arguing that conventional science is too foolish to merit the name 
and that the torch should pass to them. 

As the greatest irony of all, they could use the story of Hes- 
peropithecus, if they understood it properly, to advance their gen- 
eral argument. Instead, they focus on their usual ridicule and 
rhetoric, thereby showing their true stripes even more clearly. 
The real message of Hesperopithecus proclaims that science moves 
forward by admitting and correcting its errors. If creationists re- 
ally wanted to ape the procedures of science, they would take this 
theme to heart. They would hold up their most ballyhooed, and 
now most thoroughly discredited, empirical claim — the coexis- 
tence of dinosaur and human footprints in the Paluxy Creek beds 
near Dallas — and publicly announce their error and its welcome 
correction. (The supposed human footprints turn out to be either 
random depressions in the hummocky limestone surface or par- 
tial dinosaur heel prints that vaguely resemble a human foot 
when the dinosaur toe strikes are not preserved.) But the world of 
creationists is too imbued with irrefutable dogma, and they don't 
seem able even to grasp enough about science to put up a good 
show in imitation. 

I can hardly expect them to seek advice from me. May they, 
therefore, learn the virtue of admitting error from their favorite 
source of authority, a work so full of moral wisdom and intellec- 
tual value that such a theme of basic honesty must win special 
prominence. I remind my adversaries, in the wonderful mixed 
metaphors of Proverbs (25:11,14), that “a word fitly spoken is 
like apples of gold in pictures of silver. . . . Whoso boasteth him- 
self of a false gift is like clouds and wind without rain.” 

Justice Scalia’s 

Charles lyell, defending both his version of geol- 
ogy and his designation ofjames Hutton as its intellectual father, 
described Richard Kirwan as a man “who possessed much 
greater authority in the scientific world than he was entitled by his 
talents to enjoy.” 

Kirwan, chemist, mineralogist, and president of the Royal 
Academy of Dublin, did not incur I .y cl 1 ' s wrath for a mere scien- 
tific disagreement, but for saddling Hutton with the most serious 
indictment of all — atheism and impiety. Kirwan based his accusa- 
tions on the unlikely charge that Hutton had placed the earth's 
origin beyond the domain of what science could consider or (in a 
stronger claim) had even denied that a point of origin could be 
inferred at all. Kirwan wrote in 1 799: 

Recent experience has shown that the obscurity in which the 
philosophical knowledge of this [original] state has hitherto 
been involved, has proved too favorable to the structure of 
various systems of atheism or infidelity, as these have been 
in their turn to turbulence and immorality, not to endeavor 
to dispel it by all the lights which modern geological re- 
searches have struck out. I hus it will be found that geology 
naturally ripens . . . into religion, as this does into morality. 

In our more secular age, we may fail to grasp the incendiary 
character of such a charge at the end of the eighteenth century, 
when intellectual respectability in Britain absolutely demanded 
an affirmation of religious fealty, and when fear of spreading rev- 



olution from France and America equated any departure from 
orthodoxy with encouragement of social anarchy. Calling some- 
one an atheist in those best and worst of all times invited the same 
predictable reaction as asking Cyrano how many sparrows had 
perched up there or standing up in a Boston bar and announcing 
that DiMaggio was a better hitter than Williams. 

Thus, Hutton’s champions leaped to his defense, first his con- 
temporary and Boswell, John Playfair, who wrote (in 1802) that 

such poisoned weapons as he [Kirwan] was preparing to 
use, are hardly ever allowable in scientific contest, as having 
a less direct tendency to overthrow the system, than to hurt 
the person of an adversary, and to wound, perhaps incura- 
bly, his mind, his reputation, or his peace. 

Thirty years later, Charles Lyell was still fuming: 

We cannot estimate the malevolence of such a persecution, 
by the pain which similar insinuations might now inflict; for 
although charges of infidelity and atheism must always be 
odious, they were injurious in the extreme at that moment 
of political excitement [ Principles of Geology , 1 830 1 . 

(Indeed, Kirwan noted that his book had been ready for the 
printers in 1798 but had been delayed for a year by “the confu- 
sion arising from the rebellion then raging in Ireland” — the great 
Irish peasant revolt of 1798, squelched by Viscount Castlereagh, 
uncle of Darwin’s Captain FitzRoy [see Essay 1 for much more on 

Kirwan’s accusation centered upon the last sentence of Hut- 
ton’s Theory of the Earth (original version of 1788) — the most fa- 
mous words ever written by a geologist (quoted in all textbooks, 
and often emblazoned on the coffee mugs and T-shirts of my 

The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find 
no vestige of a beginning — no prospect of an end. 

Kirwan interpreted both this motto, and Hutton’s entire argu- 
ment, as a claim for the earth’s eternity (or at least as a statement 


of necessary agnosticism about the nature of its origin). But if the 
earth be eternal, then God did not make it. And if we need no 
God to fashion our planet, then do we need him at all? Even the 
weaker version of Hutton as agnostic about the earth’s origin 
supported a charge of atheism in Kirwan’s view — for if we cannot 
know that God made the earth at a certain time, then biblical 
authority is dethroned, and we must wallow in uncertainty about 
the one matter that demands our total confidence. 

It is, I suppose, a testimony to human carelessness and to our 
tendency to substitute quips for analysis that so many key 
phrases, the mottoes of our social mythology, have standard in- 
terpretations quite contrary to their intended meanings. Kirwan’s 
reading has prevailed. Most geologists still think that Hutton was 
advocating an earth of unlimited duration — though we now view 
such a claim as heroic rather than impious. 

Yet Kirwan's charge was more than merely vicious — it was dead 
wrong. Moreover, in understanding why Kirwan erred (and why 
we still do), and in recovering what Hutton really meant, we illus- 
trate perhaps the most important principle that we can state 
about science as a way of knowing. Our failure to grasp the princi- 
ple underlies much public misperception about science. In par- 
ticular, Justice Scalia’s recent dissent in the Louisiana “creation 
science” case rests upon this error in discussing the character of 
evolutionary arguments. We all rejoiced when the Supreme 
Court ended a long episode in American history and voided the 
last law that would have forced teachers to “balance” instruction 
in evolution with fundamentalist biblical literalism masquerading 
under the oxymoron “creation science.” I now add a tiny hurrah 
in postscript by pointing out that the dissenting argument rests, 
in large part, upon a misunderstanding of science. 

Hutton replied to Kirwan’s original attack by expanding his 
1788 treatise into a cumbersome work, The Theory of the Earth 
(1795). With forty-page quotations in French and repetitive, in- 
voluted justifications, Hutton’s new work condemned his theory 
to unreadability. Fortunately, his friend John Playfair, a mathe- 
matician and outstanding prose stylist, composed the most ele- 
gant pony ever written and published his Illustrations of the 
Huttonian Theory of the Earth in 1802. Playfair presents a two-part 
refutation for Kirwan’s charge of atheism. 

1. Hutton neither argued for the earth’s eternity nor claimed 


that we could say nothing about its origin. In his greatest contri- 
bution, Hutton tried to develop a cyclical theory for the history of 
the earth’s surface, a notion to match the Newtonian vision of 
continuous planetary revolution about the sun. The materials of 
the earth’s surface, he argued, passed through a cycle of perfect 
repetition in broad scale. Consider the three major stages. First, 
mountains erode and their products are accumulated as thick 
sequences of layered sediments in the ocean. Second, sediments 
consolidate and their weight melts the lower layers, forming mag- 
mas. Third, the pressure of these magmas forces the sediments 
up to form new mountains (with solidified magmas at their core), 
while the old, eroded continents become new ocean basins. The 
cycle then starts again as mountains (at the site of old oceans) 
shed their sediments into ocean basins (at the site of old conti- 
nents). Land and sea change positions in an endless dance, but 
the earth itself remains fundamentally the same. Playfair writes: 

It is the peculiar excellence of this theory . . . that it makes 
the decay of one part subservient to the restoration of an- 
other, and gives stability to the whole, not by perpetuating 
individuals, but by reproducing them in succession. 

We can easily grasp the revolutionary nature of this theory for 
concepts of time. Most previous geologies had envisioned an 
earth of short duration, moving in a single irreversible direction, 
as its original mountains eroded into the sea. By supplying a 
“concept of repair” in his view of magmas as uplifting forces, 
Hutton burst the strictures of time. No more did continents 
erode once into oblivion; they could form anew from the prod- 
ucts of their own decay and the earth could cycle on and on. 

This cyclical theory has engendered the false view that Hutton 
considered the earth eternal. True, the mechanics of the cycle 
provide no insight into beginnings or endings, for laws of the 
cycle can only produce a continuous repetition and therefore 
contain no notion of birth, death, or even of aging. But this con- 
clusion only specifies that laws of nature’s present order cannot 
specify beginnings or ends. Beginnings and ends may exist — in 
fact, Hutton considered a concept of starts and stops absolutely 
essential for any rational understanding — but we cannot learn 
anything about this vital subject from nature’s present laws. Hut- 


ton, who was a devoted theist despite Kirwan’s charge, argued 
that God had made a beginning, and would ordain an end, by 
summoning forces outside the current order of nature. For the 
stable period between, he had ordained laws that impart no direc- 
tionality and therefore permit no insight into beginnings and 

Note how carefully Hutton chose the words of his celebrated 
motto. “No vestige of a beginning” because the earth has been 
through so many cycles since then that all traces of an original 
state have vanished. But the earth certainly had an original state. 
“No prospect of an end” because the current laws of nature pro- 
vide no insight into a termination that must surely occur. Playfair 
describes Hutton’s view of God: 

He may put an end, as he no doubt gave a beginning, to the 
present system, at some determinate period; but we may 
safely conclude, that this great catastrophe will not be 
brought about by any of the laws now existing, and that it is 
not indicated by any thing which we perceive. 

2. Hutton did not view our inability to specify beginnings and 
ends as a baleful limitation of science but as a powerful affirma- 
tion of proper scientific methodology. Let theology deal with ulti- 
mate origins, and let science be the art of the empirically soluble. 

The British tradition of speculative geology — from Burnet, 
Whiston, and Woodward in the late seventeenth century to Kir- 
wan himself at the tail end of the eighteenth — had focused upon 
reconstructions of the earth’s origin, primarily to justify the Mo- 
saic narrative as scientifically plausible. Hutton argued that such 
attempts could not qualify as proper science, for they could only 
produce speculations about a distant past devoid of evidence to 
test any assertion (no vestige of a beginning). The subject of 
origins may be vital and fascinating, far more compelling than the 
humdrum of quotidian forces that drive the present cycle of up- 
lift, erosion, deposition, and consolidation. But science is not 
speculation about unattainable ultimates; it is a way of knowing 
based upon laws now in operation and results subject to observa- 
tion and inference. We acknowledge limits in order to proceed 
with power and confidence. 


Hutton therefore attacked the old tradition of speculation 
about the earth’s origin as an exercise in futile unprovability. 
Better to focus upon what we can know and test, leaving aside 
what the methods of science cannot touch, however fascinating 
the subject. Playfair stresses this theme more forcefully (and 
more often) than any other in his exposition of Hutton’s theory. 
He regards Hutton’s treatise as, above all, an elegant statement 
of proper scientific methodology — and he locates Hutton’s wis- 
dom primarily in his friend’s decision to eschew the subject of 
ultimate origins and to focus on the earth’s present operation. 
Playfair begins by criticizing the old manner of theorizing: 

The sole object of such theories has hitherto been, to ex- 
plain the manner in which the present laws of the mineral 
kingdom were first established, or began to exist, without 
treating of the manner in which they now proceed. 

He then evaluates this puerile strategy in one of his best prose 

The absurdity of such an undertaking admits of no apology; 
and the smile which it might excite, if addressed merely to 
the fancy, gives place to indignation when it assumes the air 
of philosophic investigation. 

Hutton, on the other hand, established the basis of a proper 
geological science by avoiding subjects “altogether beyond the 
limits of philosophical investigation.” Hutton’s explorations 
“never extended to the first origin of substances, but were con- 
fined entirely to their changes.” Playfair elaborated: 

He has indeed no where treated of the first origin of any of 
the earths, or of any substance whatsoever, but only of the 
transformations which bodies have undergone since the 
present laws of nature were established. He considered this 
last as all that a science, built on experiment and observa- 
tion, can possibly extend to; and willingly left, to more pre- 
sumptuous inquirers, the task of carrying their reasonings 
beyond the boundaries of nature. 


Finally, to Kirwan’s charge that Hutton had limited science by 
his “evasion” of origins, Playfair responded that his friend had 
strengthened science by his positive program of studying what 
could be resolved: 

Instead of an evasion, therefore, any one who considers the 
subject fairly, will see, in Dr. Hutton’s reasoning, nothing 
but the caution of a philosopher, who wisely confines his 
theory within the same limits by which nature has confined 
his experience and observation. 

This all happened a long time ago, and in a context foreign to 
our concerns. But Hutton’s methodological wisdom, and Play- 
fair’s eloquent warning, could not be more relevant today — for 
basic principles of empirical science have an underlying general- 
ity that transcends time. Practicing scientists have largely (but not 
always) imbibed Hutton’s wisdom about restricting inquiry to 
questions that can be answered. But Kirwan’s error of equating 
the best in science with the biggest questions about ultimate 
meanings continues to be the most common of popular misun- 

1 have written these monthly essays for nearly twenty years, and 
they have brought me an enormous correspondence from non- 
professionals about all aspects of science. From sheer volume, I 
obtain a pretty good sense of strengths and weaknesses in public 
perceptions. I have found that one common misconception sur- 
passes all others. People will write, telling me that they have de- 
veloped a revolutionary theory, one that will expand the 
boundaries of science. These theories, usually described in sev- 
eral pages of single-spaced typescript, are speculations about the 
deepest ultimate questions we can ask — what is the nature of fife? 
the origin of the universe? the beginning of time? 

But thoughts are cheap. Any person of intelligence can devise 
his half dozen before breakfast. Scientists can also spin out ideas 
about ullimates. We don’t (or, rather, we confine them to our 
private thoughts) because we cannot devise ways to test them, to 
decide whether they are right or wrong. What good to science is a 
lovely idea that cannot, as a matter of principle, ever be affirmed 
or denied? 

The following homily may seem paradoxical, but it embodies 


Hutton’s wisdom: The best science often proceeds by putting 
aside the overarching generality and focusing instead on a 
smaller question that can be reliably answered. In so doing, sci- 
entists show their intuitive feel for the fruitful, not their narrow- 
ness or paltriness of spirit. In this way we sneak up on big 
questions that only repel us if we try to engulf them in one fell 
speculation. Newton could not discover the nature of gravity, but 
he could devise a mathematics that unified the motion of a car- 
riage with the revolution of the moon (and the drop of an apple). 
Darwin never tried to grasp the meaning of fife (or even the man- 
ner of its origin on our planet), but he did develop a powerful 
theory to explain its manner of change through time. Hutton did 
not discover how our earth originated, but he developed some 
powerful and testable ideas about how it ticked. You might al- 
most define a good scientist as a person with the horse sense to 
discern the largest answerable question — and to shun useless is- 
sues that sound grander. 

Hutton’s positive principle of restriction to the doable also de- 
fines the domain and procedures of evolutionary biology, my 
own discipline. Evolution is not the study of life’s ultimate origin 
as a path toward discerning its deepest meaning. Evolution, in 
fact, is not the study of origins at all. Even the more restricted 
(and scientifically permissible) question of life’s origin on our 
earth lies outside its domain. (This interesting problem, I sus- 
pect, falls primarily within the purview of chemistry and the phys- 
ics of self-organizing systems.) Evolution studies the pathways 
and mechanisms of organic change following the origin of life. 
Not exactly a shabby subject either — what with such resolvable 
questions as “How, when, and where did humans evolve?”; 
“How do mass extinction, continental drift, competition among 
species, climatic change, and inherited constraints of form and 
development interact to influence the manner and rate of evolu- 
tionary change?”; and “How do the branches of life’s tree fit 
together?” to mention just a few among thousands equally excit- 

In their recently aborted struggle to inject Genesis literalism 
into science classrooms, fundamentalist groups followed their 
usual opportunistic strategy of arguing two contradictory sides of 
a question when a supposed rhetorical advantage could be ex- 
tracted from each. Their main pseudoargument held that Gene- 


sis literalism is not religion at all, but really an alternative form of 
science not acknowledged by professional biologists too hide- 
bound and dogmatic to appreciate the cutting edge of their own 
discipline. When we successfully pointed out that “creation sci- 
ence” — as an untestable set of dogmatic proposals — could not 
qualify as science by any standard definition, they turned around 
and shamelessly argued the other side. (They actually pulled off 
the neater trick of holding both positions simultaneously.) Now 
they argued that, yes indeed, creation science is religion, but evo- 
lution is equally religious. 

To support this dubious claim, they tumbled (as a conscious 
trick of rhetoric, I suspect) right into Kirwan’s error. They ig- 
nored what evolutionists actually do and misrepresented our sci- 
ence as the study of life’s ultimate origin. They then pointed out, 
as Hutton had, that questions of ultimate origins are not resolv- 
able by science. Thus, they claimed, creation science and evolu- 
tion science are symmetrical — that is, equally religious. Creation 
science isn’t science because it rests upon the untestable fashion- 
ing of life ex nihilo by God. Evolution science isn’t science because 
it tries, as its major aim, to resolve the unresolvable and ultimate 
origin of life. But we do no such thing. We understand Hutton’s 
wisdom — “he has nowhere treated of the first origin ... of any 
substance . . . but only of the transformations which bodies have 
undergone. . . .” 

Our legal battle with creationists started in the 1920s and 
reached an early climax with the conviction of John Scopes in 
1925. After some quiescence, the conflict began in earnest again 
during the 1970s and has haunted us ever since. Finally, in June 
1987, the Supreme Court ended this major chapter in American 
history with a decisive 7-2 vote, striking down the last creationist 
statute, the Louisiana equal time act, as a ruse to inject religion 
into science classrooms in violation of First Amendment guaran- 
tees for separation of church and state. 

I don't mean to appear ungrateful, but we fallible humans are 
always seeking perfection in others. I couldn't help wondering 
how two justices could have ruled the other way. I may not be 
politically astute, but I am not totally naive either. I have read 
Justice Scalia’s long dissent carefully, and I recognize that its 
main thrust lies in legal issues supporting the extreme judicial 
conservatism espoused by Scalia and the other dissenter, Chief 


Justice Rehnquist. Nonetheless, though forming only part of his 
rationale, Scalia’s argument relies crucially upon a false concept 
of science — Kirwan’s error again. I regret to say that Justice 
Scalia does not understand the subject matter of evolutionary 
biology. He has simply adopted the creationists’ definition and 
thereby repeated their willful mistake. 

Justice Scalia writes, in his key statement on scientific evidence: 

The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian 
fundamentalists, are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to 
have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evo- 
lution presented in their schools. 

I simply don’t see the point of this statement. Of course they 
are so entitled, and absolutely nothing prevents such a presenta- 
tion, if evidence there be. The equal time law forces teaching of 
creation science, but nothing prevented it before, and nothing 
prevents it now. Teachers were, and still are, free to teach cre- 
ation science. They don’t because they recognize it as a ruse and a 

Scalia does acknowledge that the law would be unconstitu- 
tional if creation science is free of evidence — as it is — and if it 
merely restates the Book of Genesis — as it does: 

Perhaps what the Louisiana Legislature has done is uncon- 
stitutional because there is no such evidence, and the 
scheme they have established will amount to no more than a 
presentation of the Book of Genesis. 

Scalia therefore admits that the issue is not merely legal and 
does hinge on a question of scientific fact. He then buys the crea- 
tionist argument and denies that we have sufficient evidence to 
render this judgment of unconstitutionality. Continuing directly 
from the last statement, he writes: 

But we cannot say that on the evidence before us. . . . Infi- 
nitely less can we say (or should we say) that the scientific 
evidence for evolution is so conclusive that no one would be 
gullible enough to believe that there is any real scientific 
evidence to the contrary. 


But this is exactly what I, and all scientists, do say. We are not 
blessed with absolute certainty about any fact of nature, but evo- 
lution is as well confirmed as anything we know — surely as well as 
the earth’s shape and position (and we don't require equal time 
for flat-earthers and those who believe that our planet resides at 
the center of the universe). We have oodles to learn about how 
evolution happened, but we have adequate proof that living 
forms are connected by bonds of genealogical descent. 

So I asked myself, how could Justice Scalia be so uninformed 
about the state of our basic knowledge? And then I remembered 
something peculiar that bothered me, but did not quite register, 
when I first read his dissent. I went back to his characterization of 
evolution and what did I find (repeated, by the way, more than a 
dozen limes, so we know that the argument represents no one- 
time slip of his pen, but a consistent definition)? 

Justice Scalia has defined evolution as the search for life’s ori- 
gin — and nothing more. He keeps speaking about “the current 
state of scientific evidence about the origin of life” when he 
means to designate evolution. He writes that “the legislature 
wanted to ensure that students would be free to decide for them- 
selves how life began based upon a fair and balanced presenta- 
tion of the scientific evidence.” Never does he even hint that 
evolution might be the study of how life changes after it origi- 
nates — the entire panoply of transformation from simple mole- 
cules to all modern, multicellular complexity. 

Moreover, to make matters worse, Scalia doesn't even acknowl- 
edge the scientific side of the origin of life on earth. He argues 
that a creationist law might have a secular purpose so long as we 
can envisage a concept of creation not involving a personal God 
“who is the object of religious veneration.” He then points out 
that many such concepts exist, stretching back to Aristotle’s no- 
tion of an unmoved mover. In the oral argument before the 
Court, which I attended on December 10, 1986, Scalia pressed 
this point even more forcefully with counsel for our side. He 

What about Aristotle’s view of a first cause, an unmoved 
mover? Would that be a creationist view? I don’t think Aris- 
totle considered himself as a theologian as opposed to a 


In fact, he probably considered himself a scientist. . . . 
Well, then, you could believe in a first cause, an unmoved 
mover, that may be impersonal, and has no obligation of 
obedience or veneration from men, and in fact, doesn’t care 
what’s happening to mankind. And believe in creation. 
[From the official transcript, and omitting the responses of 
our lawyer.] 

Following this theme, Scalia presents his most confused state- 
ment in the written dissent: 

Creation science, its proponents insist, no more must ex- 
plain whence life came than evolution must explain whence 
came the inanimate materials from which it says life 
evolved. But even if that were not so, to posit a past creator 
is not to posit the eternal and personal God who is the ob- 
ject of religious veneration. 

True indeed; one might be a creationist in some vernacular 
sense by maintaining a highly abstract and impersonal view of a 
creator. But Aristotle’s unmoved mover is no more part of sci- 
ence than the Lord of Genesis. Science does not deal with ques- 
tions of ultimate origins. We would object just as strongly if the 
Aristotelophiles of Delaware forced a law through the state legis- 
lature requiring that creation of each species ex nihilo by an un- 
moved mover be presented every time evolution is discussed in 
class. The difference lies only in historical circumstance, not the 
logic of argument. The unmoved mover doesn’t pack much polit- 
ical punch; fundamentalism ranks among our most potent irra- 

Consider also, indeed especially, Scalia’s false concept of sci- 
ence. He equates creation and evolution because creationists 
can’t explain life’s beginning, while evolutionists can’t resolve 
the ultimate origin of the inorganic components that later aggre- 
gated to life. But this inability is the very heart of creationist logic 
and the central reason why their doctrine is not science, while 
science’s inability to specify the ultimate origin of matter is irrele- 
vant because we are not trying to do any such thing. We know 
that we can’t, and we don’t even consider such a question as part 
of science. 


We understand Hutton’s wisdom. We do not search for unat- 
tainable ultimates. We define evolution, using Darwin’s phrase, 
as “descent with modification” from prior living things. Our doc- 
umentation of life’s evolutionary tree records one of science’s 
greatest triumphs, a profoundly liberating discovery on the old- 
est maxim that truth can make us free. We have made this discov- 
ery by recognizing what can be answered and what must be left 
alone. If Justice Scalia heeded our definitions and our practices, 
he would understand why creationism cannot qualify as science. 
He would also, by the way, sense the excitement of evolution and 
its evidence; no person of substance could be unmoved by some- 
thing so interesting. Only Aristotle’s creator may be so impassive. 

Don Quixote recognized “no limits but the sky,” but became 
thereby the literary embodiment of unattainable reverie. G. K. 
Chesterton understood that any discipline must define its bor- 
ders of fruitfulness. He spoke for painting, but you may substi- 
tute any creative enterprise: “Art is limitation: the essence of 
every picture is the frame.” 





The Streak of Streaks* 

my father was a court stenographer. At his less 
than princely salary, we watched Yankee games from the bleach- 
ers or high in the third deck. But one of the judges had season 
tickets, so we occasionally sat in the lower boxes when hizzoner 
couldn't attend. One afternoon, while DiMaggio was going 0 for 
4 against, of all people, the lowly St. Louis Browns, the great man 
fouled one in our direction. “Catch it. Dad,” I screamed. “You 
never get them,” he replied, but stuck up his hand like the Statue 
of Liberty — and the ball fell right in. I mailed it to DiMaggio, and, 
bless him, he actually sent the ball back, signed and in a box 
marked “insured.” Insured, that is, to make me the envy of the 
neighborhood, and DiMaggio the model and hero of my life. 

I met DiMaggio a few years ago on a small playing held at the 
Presidio of San Francisco. My son, wearing DiMaggio’s old num- 
ber 5 on his Little League jersey, accompanied me, exactly one 
generation after my father caught that ball. DiMaggio gave him a 
pointer or two on batting and then signed a baseball for him. One 
generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: But 
the earth abideth forever. 

My son, uncoached by Dad, and given the chance that comes 
but once in a lifetime, asked DiMaggio as his only query about life 

*This essay originally appeared in the New York Review of Books as a review of 
Michael Seidel’s Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of 1941 (New York: McGraw- 
Hill, 1988). I have excised the references to Seidel’s book in order to forge a more 
general essay, but I thank him both for the impetus and for writing such a fine 



and career: “Suppose you had walked every time up during one 
game of your 56-game hitting streak? Would the streak have been 
over?” DiMaggio replied that, under 1941 rules, the streak would 
have ended, but that this unfair statute has since been revised, 
and such a game would not count today. 

My son’s choice for a single question tells us something vital 
about the nature of legend. A man may labor for a professional 
lifetime, especially in sport or in battle, but posterity needs a 
single transcendant event to fix him in permanent memory. Every 
hero must be a Wellington on the right side of his personal 
Waterloo; generality of excellence is too diff use. The unambigu- 
ous factuality of a single achievement is adamantine. Detractors 
can argue forever about the general tenor of your life and works, 
but they can never erase a great event. 

In 1941 , as I gestated in my mother’s womb, Joe DiMaggio got 
at least one hit in each of 56 successive games. Most records are 
only incrementally superior to runners-up; Roger Maris hit 61 
homers in 1961, but Babe Ruth hit 60 in 1927 and 59 in 1921, 
while Hank Greenberg (1938) and Jimmy Foxx (1932) both hit 
58. But DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is ridiculously, almost 
unreachably far from all challengers (Wee Willie Keeler and Pete 
Rose, both with 44, come second). Among sabermetricians (a 
happy neologism based on an acronym for members of the Soci- 
ety for American Baseball Research, and referring to the statisti- 
cal mavens of the sport) — a contentious lot not known for 
agreement about anything — we find virtual consensus that Di- 
Maggio’s 56-game hitting streak is the greatest accomplishment 
in the history of baseball, if not all modern sport. 

The reasons for this respect are not far to seek. Single mo- 
ments of unexpected supremacy— Johnny Vander Meer’s back- 
to-back no-hitters in 1938, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 
1956 World Series — can occur at any time to almost anybody, 
and have an irreducibly capricious character. Achievements of a 
full season — such as Maris’s 61 homers in 1961 and Ted Wil- 
liams’s batting average of .406, also posted in 1941 and not 
equaled since — have a certain overall majesty, but they don’t de- 
mand unfailing consistency every single day; you can slump for a 
while, so long as your average holds. But a streak must be abso- 
lutely exceptionless; you are not allowed a single day of subpar 
play, or even bad luck. You bat only four or five times in an 


average game. Sometimes two or three of these efforts yield 
walks, and you get only one or two shots at a hit. Moreover, as 
tension mounts and notice increases, your life becomes unbeara- 
ble. Reporters dog your every step; fans are even more intrusive 
than usual (one stole DiMaggio’s favorite bat right in the middle 
of his streak). You cannot make a single mistake. 

Thus Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is both the great- 
est factual achievement in the history of baseball and a principal 
icon of American mythology. What shall we do with such a central 
item of our cultural history? 

Statistics and mythology may strike us as the most unlikely of 
bedfellows. How can we quantify Caruso or measure Mid- 
dleman h? But if God could mete out heaven with the span (Isaiah 
40; 12), perhaps we can say something useful about hitting 
streaks. The statistics of “runs,” defined as continuous series of 
good or bad results (including baseball’s streaks and slumps), is 
a well-developed branch of the profession, and can yield clear 
but wildly counterintuitive — results. (The fact that we find these 
conclusions so surprising is the key to appreciating DiMaggio s 
achievement, the point of this article, and the gateway to an 
important insight about the human mind.) 

Start with a phenomenon that nearly everyone both accepts 
and considers well understood — hot hands in basketball. Now 
and then, someone just gets hot, and can t be stopped. Basket 
after basket falls in— or out as with “cold hands,” when a man 
can’t buy a bucket for love or money (choose your cliche). The 
reason for this phenomenon is clear enough: It lies embodied in 
the maxim, “When you’re hot, you’re hot; and when you’re not, 
you’re not.” You get that touch, build confidence; all nervous- 
ness fades, you find your rhythm; sunsh, swish, swish. Or you miss a 
few, get rattled, endure the booing, experience despair; hands 
start shaking and you realize that you shoulda stood in bed. 

Everybody knows about hot hands. The only problem is that 
no such phenomenon exists. Stanford psychologist Amos 
Tversky studied every basket made by the Philadelphia 76ers for 
more than a season. He found, first of all, that the probability of 
making a second basket did not rise following a successful shot. 
Moreover, the number of “runs,” or baskets in succession, was 
no greater than what a standard random, or coin-tossing, model 
would predict. (If the chance of making each basket is 0.5, for 


example, a reasonable value for good shooters, five hits in a row 
will occur, on average, once in 32 sequences — just as you can 
expect to toss five successive heads about once in 32 times, or 
0.5 5 .) 

Of course Larry Bird, the great forward of the Boston Celtics, 
will have more sequences of five than Joe Airball — but not be- 
cause he has greater will or gets in that magic rhythm more often. 
Larry has longer runs because his average success rate is so much 
higher, and random models predict more frequent and longer 
sequences. If Larry shoots field goals at 0.6 probability of suc- 
cess, he will get five in a row about once every 13 sequences 
(0.6 5 ). If Joe, by contrast, shoots only 0.3, he will get his five 
straight only about once in 4 1 2 times. In other words, we need no 
special explanation for the apparent pattern of long runs. There 
is no ineffable “causality of circumstance” (to coin a phrase), no 
definite reason born of the particulars that make for heroic 
myths — courage in the clinch, strength in adversity, etc. You only 
have to know a person’s ordinary play in order to predict his 
sequences. (I rather suspect that we are convinced of the contrary 
not only because we need myths so badly, but also because we 
remember the successes and simply allow the failures to fade 
from memory. More on this later.) But how does this revisionist 
pessimism work for baseball? 

My colleague Ed Purcell, Nobel laureate in physics but, for 
purposes of this subject, just another baseball fan, has done a 
comprehensive study of all baseball streak and slump records. 
His firm conclusion is easily and swiftly summarized. Nothing 
ever happened in baseball above and beyond the frequency pre- 
dicted by coin-tossing models. The longest runs of wins or losses 
are as long as they should be, and occur about as often as they 
ought to. Even the hapless Orioles, at 0 and 21 to start the 1988 
season, only fell victim to the laws of probability (and not to the 
vengeful God of racism, out to punish major league baseball's 
only black manager).* 

But “treasure your exceptions,” as the old motto goes. Pur- 

*When I wrote this essay, Frank Robinson, the Baltimore skipper, was the only 
black man at the helm of a major league team. For more on the stats of Balti- 
more’s slump, see my article “Winning and Losing: It’s All in the Game,” Rotunda, 
Spring 1989. 


cell’s rule has but one major exception, one sequence so many 
standard deviations above the expected distribution that it 
should never have occurred at all: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit- 
ting streak in 1941. I he intuition of baseball aficionados has 
been vindicated. Purcell calculated that to make it likely (proba- 
bility greater than 50 percent) that a run of even 50 games will 
occur once in the history of baseball up to now (and 56 is a lot 
more than 50 in this kind of league), baseball s rosters would 
have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or 52 lifetime 
.350 batters over careers of 1,000 games. In actuality, only three 
men have lifetime batting averages in excess of .350, and no one 
is anywhere near .400 (Ty Cobb at .367, Rogers Hornsby at .358, 
and Shoeless Joe Jackson at .356). DiMaggio’s streak is the most 
extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports. He 
sits on the shoulders of two bearers— mythology and science. For 
Joe DiMaggio accomplished what no other ballplayer has done. 
He beat the hardest taskmaster of all, a woman who makes Nolan 
Ryan’s fastball look like a cantaloupe in slow motion — Lady Luck. 

A larger issue lies behind basic documentation and simple ap- 
preciation. For we don’t understand the truly special character of 
DiMaggio’s record because we are so poorly equipped, whether 
by habits of culture or by our modes of cognition, to grasp the 
workings of random processes and patterning in nature. 

Omar Khayyam, the old Persian tentmaker, understood the 
quandary of our lives ( Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitz- 
gerald, trans.): 

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing, 

Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing; 

And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, 

I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing. 

But we cannot bear it. We must have comforting answers. We see 
pattern, for pattern surely exists, even in a purely random world. 
(Only a highly nonrandom universe could possibly cancel out the 
clumping that we perceive as pattern. We think we see constella- 
tions because stars are dispersed at random in the heavens, and 
therefore clump in our sight — see Essay 17.) Our error lies not in 
the perception of pattern but in automatically imbuing pattern 
with meaning, especially with meaning that can bring us comfort, 


or dispel confusion. Again, Omar took the more honest ap- 

Ah, love! could you and I with Fate conspire 
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, 

Would not we shatter it to bits — and then 
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire! 

We, instead, have tried to impose that “heart’s desire’’ upon the 
actual earth and its largely random patterns (Alexander Pope, 
Essay on Man, end of Epistle 1): 

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee; 

All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see; 

All Discord, Harmony not understood: 

All partial Evil, universal Good. 

Sorry to wax so poetic and tendentious about something that 
leads back to DiMaggio’s hitting streak, but this broader setting 
forms the source of our misinterpretation. We believe in “hot 
hands” because we must impart meaning to a pattern — and we 
like meanings that tell stories about heroism, valor, and excel- 
lence. We believe that long streaks and slumps must have direct 
causes internal to the sequence itself, and we have no feel for the 
frequency and length of sequences in random data. Thus, while 
we understand that DiMaggio’s hitting streak was the longest 
ever, we don’t appreciate its truly special character because we 
view all the others as equally patterned by cause, only a little 
shorter. We distinguish DiMaggio’s feat merely by quantity along 
a continuum of courage; we should, instead, view his 56-game 
hitting streak as a unique assault upon the otherwise unblem- 
ished record of Dame Probability. 

Amos Tversky, who studied “hot hands,” has performed, with 
Daniel Kahneman, a series of elegant psychological experiments. 
These long-term studies have provided our finest insight into 
“natural reasoning” and its curious departure from logical truth. 
To cite an example, they construct a fictional description of a 
young woman: “Linda is 3 1 years old, single, outspoken, and very 
bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply 
concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and 


also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.” Subjects are 
then given a list of hypothetical statements about Linda: They 
must rank these in order of presumed likelihood, most to least 
probable. Tversky and Kahneman list eight statements, but five 
are a blind, and only three make up the true experiment: 

Linda is active in the feminist movement; 

Linda is a bank teller; 

Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. 

Now it simply must be true that the third statement is least 
likely, since any conjunction has to be less probable than either of 
its parts considered separately. Everybody can understand this 
when the principle is explained explicitly and patiently. But all 
groups of subjects, sophisticated students who have pondered 
logic and probability as well as folks off the street corner, rank the 
last statement as more probable than the second. (I am particu- 
larly fond of this example because I know that the third statement 
is least probable, yet a little homunculus in my head continues to 
jump up and down, shouting at me — “but she can’t just be a bank 
teller; read the description.”) 

Why do we so consistently make this simple logical error? 
Tversky and Kahneman argue, correctly I think, that our minds 
are not built (for whatever reason) to work by the rules of proba- 
bility, though these rules clearly govern our universe. We do 
something else that usually serves us well, but fails in crucial 
instances: We “match to type.” We abstract what we consider the 
“essence” of an entity, and then arrange our judgments by their 
degree of similarity to this assumed type. Since we are given a 
“type” for Linda that implies feminism, but definitely not a bank 
job, we rank any statement matching the type as more probable 
than another that only contains material contrary to the type. 
This propensity may help us to understand an entire range of 
human preferences, from Plato’s theory of form to modern 
stereotyping of race or gender. 

We might also understand the world better, and free ourselves 
of unseemly prejudice, if we properly grasped the workings of 
probability and its inexorable hold, through laws of logic, upon 
much of nature’s pattern. “Matching to type” is one common 
error; failure to understand random patterning in streaks and 


slumps is another — hence Tversky’s study of both the fictional 
Linda and the 76ers’ baskets. Our failure to appreciate the 
uniqueness of DiMaggio’s streak derives from the same unnatu- 
ral and uncomfortable relationship that we maintain with proba- 
bility. (If we knew Lady Luck better, Las Vegas might still be a 
roadstop in the desert.) 

My favorite illustration of this basic misunderstanding, as ap- 
plied to DiMaggio’s hitting streak, appeared in a recent article by 
baseball writer John Holway, “A Little Help from His Friends,” 
and subtitled “Hits or Hype in ’41” (Sports Heritage, 1987). Hol- 
way points out that five of DiMaggio’s successes were narrow 
escapes and lucky breaks. He received two benehts-of-the-doubt 
from official scorers on plays that might have been judged as 
errors. In each of two games, his only hit was a cheapie. In game 
16, a ball dropped untouched in the outfield and had to be called 
a hit, even though the ball had been misjudged and could have 
been caught; in game 54, DiMaggio dribbled one down the third- 
base line, easily beating the throw because the third baseman, 
expecting the usual, was playing far back. The fifth incident is an 
oft-told tale, perhaps the most interesting story of the streak. In 
game 38, DiMaggio was 0 for 3 going into the last inning. Sched- 
uled to bat fourth, he might have been denied a chance to hit at 
all. Johnny Sturm popped up to begin the inning, but Red Rolfe 
then walked. Slugger Tommy Henrich, up next, was suddenly 
swept with a premonitory fear: Suppose I ground into a double 
play and end the inning? An elegant solution immediately occur- 
red to him: Why not bunt (an odd strategy for a power hitter). 
Henrich laid down a beauty; DiMaggio, up next, promptly drilled 
a double to left. 

I enjoyed Hol